I’m sitting on an airplane, and the woman across the aisle seems difficult to me. When the flight attendant asked her to put her backpack under the seat in front of her before takeoff, she looked like she was going to do that, but she didn’t. She picked it up, but as soon as the flight attendant moved away, she plopped it down at her feet again, not putting it under the seat as requested.
When our meals were served, she was aghast that hers arrived and sent it away to have it “much later” (this flight is only two hours long). While the flight attendant was busy cleaning up trays and replenishing drinks, she interrupted her to ask for a blanket (she couldn’t wait until the flight attendant made it to her row to ask nicely).
When the flight attendant brought her a blanket, she ripped it out of the plastic (which looked aggressive to me) and threw the plastic in the middle of the aisle for someone else to pick up.
I tried to give her the stink eye as her behavior didn’t seem appropriate. She seemed demanding and argumentative, and I have no idea why.
The United flight attendants handled it gracefully and professionally, where I’m not sure I would have been so understanding (I wasn’t that understanding from my seat across the aisle).
Difficult people can test us. Test our professionalism, respect, and the ability to be kind. It won’t be easy when someone is difficult, and it has nothing to do with you.
Here are five tips to help you keep your cool and do the right thing (like these flight attendants did).
- Show emotional control. Refuse to argue, and ensure you remain in control of yourself. It would be easy to throw out a passive-aggressive comment about the plastic on the floor. It would be easy to remind her the flight is too short for her to operate on a different schedule and that the flight attendants have a lot to do in a short period of time.
Think about how we defend our role (I have a million deadlines; I can’t push yours up!) or feel the need to explain our situation.
Don’t. Take a deep breath. Slow down your reaction speed and instead respond to the situation. Refuse to be baited by someone else’s poor behavior.
- Patiently listen. It is tempting to interrupt. Instead, let them vent their situation. While the lady across the aisle didn’t vent, she could have vented about how her day had started in a different time zone and that she wasn’t hungry yet. She could have explained how tired she was, which is why she was cold. Listen to the difficult person justify why they want what they want.
It is extremely tempting to interrupt and explain your point of view. Don’t. Your difficult person needs to feel heard. They are justifying why they are doing what they are doing. You don’t need to defend your point of view as it tends to frustrate them and often makes them a little more difficult as they don’t feel heard.
- Show empathy. Take a minute and try to see the situation from their perspective. It doesn’t mean you agree; it just means you have compassion for what they are experiencing. Show you care. Clarify what they are telling you to show understanding, and be aware of unintentional defensive or negative body language.
- Don’t blame – Explain instead. It is tempting to explain why things are the way they are and even more tempting to put the blame anywhere other than on us. “It’s not my fault; it’s policy,” or “I agree this system is not efficient. If it were up to me, I’d do it as you suggest, but you know the suits in head office!”
Blame doesn’t stop your difficult person from being any more difficult.
- Don’t take it personally. I’m willing to bet the flight attendants wondered what they did to make this woman so challenging on the flight. I bet they didn’t do anything at all.
People are being difficult because they aren’t getting something they want. We can’t always know what they want (like the lady on the airplane), but we often think we did something to cause it. Perhaps the situation isn’t how they wanted it to be, and they are trying to change it. That doesn’t mean you caused it.
Sometimes, things don’t align for mutual benefit, and one person feels the need to escalate the situation to help meet their needs. They aren’t thinking about you and your needs; they only think of themselves. Don’t take it personally that they are difficult, as it is rarely about you.
The lady on the plane was operating on different priorities. When the gentleman beside her needed to get out of his seat to use the restroom, she moved her book bag directly in his path, and naturally, he tripped on it.
Do I think she did that deliberately? Not at all. She was doing what she wanted without consideration for others (several times on this short flight). She wasn’t trying to be difficult or trip her seatmate; she was just unaware of how her actions impacted others.
Maybe that doesn’t make her difficult. Regardless, these tips would have helped both the flight attendants and her seatmate deal with her choices without escalating the situation.