Recently, I was on an overnight flight, trying to sleep. The person in the next seat was using headphones and laughing loudly every two minutes or so. I told her, politely: “Excuse me, you probably do not realize it, but you are laughing quite loudly, and it is preventing me from going to sleep.” In response, she muttered an offensive epithet and turned away from me. I decided not to engage further and closed my eyes. I didn’t get any sleep as she continued to make noise. Once the lights were back on and we started having breakfast, she started talking to me angrily saying that I should find a different seat or use earplugs if I am disturbed by noise. I had no desire to be engaged in an argument but did not know how to respond to get her to stop. What could I have done differently?
Dear Anger Management,
A sign of your emotional maturity is your capacity to sit with others’ drama without absorbing it.
Your experience bears a striking resemblance to one I had three months ago. A perky woman next to me began peppering me with questions the instant she sat down. “What’s your name? What do you do? Why are you going to LA?” and on, and on. I introduced myself, answered a couple of perfunctory questions, then said, “I’ve got some work I want to get done. May I talk with you more when I finish in a couple of hours?” She huffed and turned away.
That was a crucial moment. In moments like that, I have three emotional choices: ignore, absorb, or acknowledge.
Ignore. I can reject the clear evidence of the other person’s upset—often in a defensive way. I can actively neglect him or her in an attempt to punish. Or, I can do so to ensure my own safety. In either case, this willful ignorance is false. I actively resist the other person’s emotions while pretending I am not.
Absorb. I can take responsibility for how the other person is feeling by apologizing, or rescuing him or her. I could turn to this lady next to me and say, “I am sorry, what’s on your mind?” or, “Please don’t be mad, I’m just very busy—I have to get these things done or I’ll be in big trouble.”
Acknowledge. Acknowledgement means I care that she is upset but also recognize that it is her choice to be upset. After acknowledging that she is angry, I first examine my own role to discern whether I have fallen short of my own moral duty. If I have, I own it. I don’t own her emotions, but I own the actions that invited her to feel that way. For example, if I had been curt with her I might say, “I don’t think I said that in a very respectful way. I am sorry. I would enjoy talking with you once I have handled some things on my mind. I hope you understand.” Next, I acknowledge that she is feeling that way by validating her. “It appears you’re upset that I won’t talk with you now. I’m sorry you feel that way.” Do NOT apologize for your choice, simply express your empathy with her upset.
In my own case, the woman began to order drink after drink. The more she took in, the angrier she became. Every few minutes, she would turn to me and say, “Are you ready to talk now, Mr. Big Shot?” With a couple of more drinks in her she began to swear at me and call me names.
It is hard to stay in acknowledge rather than absorb when a relentless string of profanities is coming at you. But it is possible. You slip from one to the other when you begin to feel either that: a) the other person’s behavior means something about you—i.e. when people are unhappy with you or don’t like you that your own worth is threatened; or b) you are responsible for the other person’s feelings—i.e. your safety or worth require you to keep others happy.
Moments like the one you had on the plane—disruptive though they may be—are a great chance to develop the internal muscle to stay in acknowledge and avoid slipping into absorb. When you are able to sleep in spite of someone else’s drama, you’ll know you’ve reached momentary competence. My ability to sleep is usually affected more by the emotional noise inside me than the physical noise outside me. If I can quiet the first, I have at least a hope of rest. Continued practice can propel you to sustained competence. Truthfully, I’m working hard to get there myself.
Once I finished my work, I turned to the woman next to me and said, “I would like to talk now if you are still interested.” It turned out, she was on her way to the Betty Ford Clinic for her alcoholism. I doubt my conversation with her changed her trajectory much, but I was happy that I was able to connect with her for a few minutes.
Next time you’ve got a party going on in the next seat, take advantage of the opportunity to do some emotional calisthenics.
The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations