You must have heard by now the several incidents of airline passengers fighting over seat space. I have traveled regularly on airlines for 20 years. While I’m lucky enough to get upgraded to first or business class on a number of occasions, it seems that with the numerous airline consolidations and reduced seat capacity, I find myself sitting in coach more often than I’d like to.

While I’m no saint, my basic rule is: if the person in front of me doesn’t recline, I won’t either, to be considerate of the person sitting behind me. There’s been more than once that I’ve had someone sitting in front of me fully recline his or her seat with no notice, smacking and nearly breaking my laptop screen in the process. These are the times I’d like to throw water at them like the woman did on United flight 1462.

Image courtesy of TCJ2020 at

Image courtesy of TCJ2020 at

I think this microcosm of human behavior in a tight, closed environment can teach us quite a bit about how we work together. Here are a few thoughts:

Territorial Issues Are Important. On the airplane, the seat, armrests, and overhead storage areas can be major battlefields. I won’t get into geographical issues like office space here, but rather focus on the territory that goes with someone’s work responsibilities. Let’s respect the boundaries of responsibility or ownership. Be careful about making decisions that affect others without their input, consideration or knowledge. No one likes to be surprised and have others make decisions affecting them without their input. I realize that many areas of responsibility can be undefined or not have clear ownership, and at times it’s great if someone “jumps in” and takes charge. However, take a broad view when doing this and consider who else your efforts might impact. On the flip side, just because we have responsibility for a given “territory” doesn’t mean we should rule like a despot and not consider the greater need or good of collaboration and sharing resources.

A little courtesy goes a long way. It sounds simple, but this is something most of us have to continually be mindful of. When is the last time you did a little favor for a co-worker? Or, how much do you really know about most of your coworkers beyond a superficial level? I’m not saying we have to have deep personal relationships with everyone. But how much do you know about the receptionist or security guard who greets you every morning, the mail person, or any of the myriad of people who provide services for you all day long? Do you even know their names? When is the last time you expressed appreciation to someone without having an “ask” precede or follow? Showing a genuine interest in others’ well-being and expressing appreciation for what they do can make more of a lasting impression than you might think.

There are better and worse ways to resolve conflicts. Refusing to make a change (like taking the Knee Defender™ off the seat or throwing water at your fellow passengers) are obviously not the best ways to resolve conflicts. In that particular situation, just two individuals inconvenienced well over 100 people in their travels when the flight had to be diverted. So how do you resolve conflicts? Ignore them and just pray for a change? Say something to the person and hope he or she changes to your liking? Threaten action or go “over their heads”? Certainly the degree of importance of the conflict is key here, but I would suggest the following:

  • Consider how crucial the conflict is. If it’s pretty minor, let it go, get over it and focus on things that are more important.
  • If it’s an important matter, take some time, consider the other person’s perspective or point of view and be willing to admit to yourself that they may have a valid perspective.
  • Let go of the need to be “right” and prove yourself.
  • Determine those items on which you can and cannot compromise.
  • Prepare for and have a conversation. Invite the other person to share their perspective or concerns. Understand what’s behind the issue. Find some common ground. Agree to keep the dialogue open and to keep working together.

When situations get tense we have a chance to show leadership, our best character traits and encourage the best results from others. Yet instead, often we can “dig in”, become defensive, and lose an opportunity to build stronger relationships with those on whom we depend heavily for our success. The next time someone reclines their seat right into your lap, smile and refer them to this post.