Dear Crucial Skills,
One late Friday afternoon while traveling on a commercial airline carrier that was completely packed (all seats sold—and I do mean all), I had the misfortune of getting a center seat. If this were not bad enough, it was summertime (and of course uncomfortably warm). The person seated immediately to my right in the aisle seat was extremely obese and a portion of that obesity was overlapping my leg from my hip to my knee. As you can imagine, after some time my leg began to sweat profusely, making me very uncomfortable. I immediately went to silence (while contemplating violence and praying that God would move that mountain). I endured this for a flight of perhaps 1 1/2 hours and never addressed the issue. Upon arrival at the destination airport, I was soaked in sweat from my hip to my knee.
How could a person address such an issue in a way to gain consideration without embarrassing or angering the other passenger?
Thanks for your thoughts on this important issue.
I was particularly interested in responding to your question because it is phrased in a way that is remarkably honest and that illustrates one of the biggest reasons we (you, I, and most other people) sometimes stink at Crucial Confrontations.
We stink because we tell ourselves ugly stories about the person we need to confront. Now, I’m probably going to be unfair to you because if we spoke together I might find that some of your word choices were not intended the way I read them. But for the sake of a teaching opportunity, I beg you to let me use the words that are there to make a valuable point, okay? Here’s the point. It’s hard enough to talk to someone about personal physical issues. But it moves from hard to impossible when in our mind we hold negative judgments about them for it. The evidence for me that you may have negative judgments comes in word choices like, “praying that God would move that mountain.” The stories we often tell ourselves when others cause us problems tend to turn them from people into things in our minds. We objectify them. At times, we even villainize them.
What I’m saying here is that the biggest reason we tend to go to silence is that we don’t care about the other people involved—we simply see them as problems to be solved. And since we don’t care about their concerns, if we do speak up we tend to do it in a way that violates safety—the foundation of effective dialogue.
Let me give a personal example. I bought some food at an airport kiosk a while back and was treated—in my view—very rudely by the person preparing it. She had a tip jar at the cash register and I was confident she expected me to pay her for the service she had rendered. I had no intention of doing so. In fact, the tip I intended to give her was a crucial confrontation—I was going to give her feedback about her behavior. But fortunately the service was slow enough for me to examine my story about her before I opened my mouth. I realized I saw her as an obnoxious, self-centered person who was taking her misery at life out on me. My intention because of this story was not to give her feedback, but to give her punishment.
Had I opened my mouth with that story driving my emotions I would have inevitably been condescending and rude. And when she reacted badly to my “feedback” I would have blamed her. In the yawning expanse of time during which I waited for my food I worked on my story. I tried to think about her day, her life, the previous customers, and even my officious food order. And something wonderful happened. I saw her as a person. And I still wanted to talk to her—but not just to give feedback, it was to serve her. And that changed everything. That’s a long way of saying “watch out.”
When someone is creating physical or emotional discomfort for you, you are at enormous risk of telling yourself a story that turns that person from a person into a thing. Which makes it more likely you’ll move to silence (after all, this kind of inconsiderate person isn’t likely to care—so why speak up?) or violence (they deserve to know how their lack of self-control inconveniences people around them—so I’ll be brutally honest).
Thanks for letting me go off on that harangue.
Final point. If there’s a conversation you need to have it’s not with the person next to you, but with the airline. The person did nothing wrong and had no option for doing anything different had you confronted him or her. The right conversation is with an airline that has not figured out how to accommodate people of different sizes without creating discomfort for them and others.