Don’t fly off the handle!
While I struggled through trying to frame this article on understanding and managing conflict—and come up with a catchy title—I was struck by how many terms in our lexicon relate to both conflict and flying, as in airline travel.
There’s “fight or flight” mode for starters—how we describe the physical experience of being stressed. When we lose our ability to think rationally, because of the chemical response that causes us to lose access to our brain’s prefrontal cortex, we are “flying off the handle.” Dan Goleman, author of many books on emotional intelligence, calls this same response “amygdala hijack”— another flight related term. See my point?
This on my mind because I just flew back from a training…somewhat ironically on conflict management. The training was in Philly last week—yup, my flight was right on the tail end of Winter Storm Grayson. Big storms impact people’s behavior, no doubt. And when people are trying to fly home post-holidays and there have been cancellations and delays due to a record setting winter event dramatic enough to warrant the term “bombogenesis,” it’s pretty much “a perfect storm” of behavior at the airport. Overall, and early in my homeward adventure that afternoon, folks were courteous and patient, kinder to each other in ways we can be when we are struggling together as a herd to survive a challenge—holding doors in the raging winds, holding elbows to keep others from slipping on the ice, and even inviting others to cut in front of us in line. Humans, being at their best!
Some of the more interesting and potentially explosive behavior started to emerge as we waited…and waited…to board. This was the first flight this airline was actually sending out that day. The previous three or four had been cancelled so there were a number of tired, anxious travelers hoping to finally “make it out” alongside those of us who had accidentally lucked out on timing. One dad with three tired looking elementary aged children looked hopeful as I overheard him update someone on the other end of his cell phone call. The plane was at the gate; we could see it out the window. Anticipating rose as airline staff headed toward the gateway doors, albeit after the stated boarding time. Eventually, the airline staff at the counter let us in on the secret behind the delay…though he was somewhere on the airport property, the first officer was late reporting to the gate. I could hear three women standing behind me, previously strangers to each other, gathering up to complain more frequently and tersely as we waited. People in line started to move closer to the desk, even though nothing was happening in terms of being invited to board.
Then it happened…a passenger walked quickly and uninvited by airline staff toward the door to the jetway. If you were a fly on the post I was leaning against, you would have heard the bubbles of conflict start to rise—crowd murmurs getting louder, passengers inching even closer to the anticipated beginning of the line. The women previously chatting behind me raised their volume and I could hear the pitch of their voices rising as their vocal cords tightened. I felt my skin prickle and I might have unconsciously said, “Uh oh!” out loud. My newly trained ears perked up. I was so curious about what was going to happen next.
As GFBAI member, Natalie McVeigh, of Wells Fargo Private Bank pointed out in our webinar titled Cooling Off Hot Conversations: Tips for Conflict Prevention & Diffusion, when it comes to conflict, “We all have a reaction to it. Some of this reaction is perception but a lot of this is neurological and biological.” I could feel biology happening. Since I had spent two days learning about my response to conflict, I was keenly aware of the skin prickles I was feeling.
Does this or some other physiologic response happen when you hear people arguing? What about as you prepare for a client meeting you are sure will involve conflict? As Natalie taught us in the webinar, “Understanding what’s happening to us physiologically before we enter a room with clients and while we’re with our clients is really helpful in working with clients.” How we engage with each other during those times is especially important. Says Natalie, “Conversational intelligence (C-IQ) is a field of study about how we are hard wired to connect with each other through conversation. We can trigger trust, growth and innovation during times of conflict. We can also trigger the lack of those by the way we conflict.” Does that sentence astound you? I think it’s worth repeating…
I wondered what the airline staff would do at this crucial moment.
I remembered the tool that Melissa Kelly-McCabe of Clear Intent Strategy (and GFBAI member) had taught us—simply reframe our definition of the term. “Conflict is when two or more ideas want to occupy the same space.” (Another sentence worth re-reading.) How does your body feel when you think of your last high conflict client meeting? How about when you imagine standing at an airline gate still waiting to board more than an hour after the scheduled departure time? Now, try again using Melissa’s neutral definition. Imagine a conflict scenario…two or more ideas…ah, my shoulders relaxed as my breathing changed from shallow to more relaxed and deep. With practice, reframing my thoughts is fairly simple and immediately impactful.
Back to what was happening at the gate…the passenger who moved to board uninvited was still not visible, the line at the counter and the waitlist on the screen were growing, and the women’s voices were rising. I noticed my unconscious reaction, refocused my awareness to relax my abdomen and breathe more deeply. The skin prickles dissipated. Then the passenger returned back to resume a place in line with the rest of us. I could feel the energy of the waiting group settle. We waited a little bit longer and, finally, the first officer arrived. (No one dared applaud though I heard murmurs about wanting to.) I literally felt the crowd’s energy settle another degree into patience until we finally heard the invitation over the PA system, “Good evening…” Finally, flying home with no flying off the handle after all.