Defusing conflict: Should you bring a feather to a fight?Article added by Steven McCarty on February 13, 2014
Steven McCarty

Steven McCarty

San Diego, CA

Joined: March 22, 2006

Traveling by air brings out the worst — and the best — in people. This became starkly obvious during one of our staffer's recent flight from New York to San Diego.

While waiting in his seat, he witnessed a dispute. A young woman had just arrived from another gate. It seemed the gate’s rep had promised her a first-class upgrade, but for some reason, the seat went to another passenger. Now the woman, her rep and his flight attendant, whose name was Dianna, were arguing over who should get the seat. And no one was giving in!

The airline rep was aggressively trying to save face. The upgrading passenger was highly exasperated. And the flight attendant wanted to avoid a public dispute, while upholding policy and launching the plane on time.

The clash was mercifully brief. The flight attendant got the belligerent rep to back down and the passenger to accept her original coach seat. How? By simply speaking softer. She also appealed to their common interest (launching the plane) by using the word “we” a lot, and she applied a lighthearted sense of humor to build goodwill.

Fortunately, her calm professionalism won the day. The two parties felt they’d been heard and accepted her decision. The remaining passengers boarded without further incident, and the staffer departed on time.

We tell this story because it illustrates how to react when your values or beliefs come into conflict with others. Human instinct is to "fight fire with fire." But this only produces angry gridlock and kicks the problem “upstairs,” where it can only get worse.There’s a better way.

Fight fire with a feather instead. In other words, replace hot emotions with a light human touch. Result: You will convert opponents into advocates and no-win situations into win-wins. We could all use more of that!

Here are a couple applications that will make this concept clearer:
  • When things don’t go your clients’ way, don’t engage with their resulting negative emotions. Instead, defuse them by applying human kindness, quiet conviction and flexibility.
  • When a boss or partner asks you to betray your values, don’t light your flamethrower. Instead, take a deep breath, ask probing questions and win the person over with the strength of your ideas, not the volume of your voice.
  • When an insurer or investment provider messes something up for a client, quiet your “inner meanie” before calling customer service. While on the phone, seek to understand what went wrong and then work toward a resolution that makes your client whole, while preserving the service rep’s dignity.
At the end of the day, life’s too short to waste time arguing. It’s better to emulate Dianna by tempering your emotions and working out solutions with a feathery touch. But don’t forget that feathers are extremely strong. It’s probably no accident that Dianna’s work nickname is "Rambo."
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