David R. Henderson  

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

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In a comment on a recent blog post I wrote on United Airlines, The Original CC highlighted one of my sentences and wrote:

You seem to be the master of deescalation. Can you explain this interaction and what you said in a little more detail? We could probably all learn from it.

The sentence he highlighted was this one:
One guy got defensive but, because I didn't get angry back, cooperated.

I might disappoint CC a little because I was so moving so fast that my memory of what I said is somewhat of a blur. What I do remember clearly was that the attitude that I take in these situations is that the people I'm asking for a favor owe me nothing. They are doing a favor, and I am the supplicant. So I don't get on my high horse and come off as someone who feels entitled. There's a very good reason I don't sound like someone who's entitled: I don't think I'm entitled. It would be nice for them to do what I'm asking, and it would probably cost them very little whereas my gain would be great, but that's for them to decide.

Back to the United incident. Once I explained that my plane would leave in about 12 minutes from a different wing of the airport, the guy said, with a tone, "The door isn't even open yet." I answered, "Yes, sir, I understand but I'm trying to get as close to the door as possible when it does open." He seemed to get it because he said, "Oh, alright" and stepped back into his seat to let me pass. [These are my rough recollections. I could be off a little.]

My attitude that has worked for me from about age 30 on can be summarized as "Keep your eye on the prize." Someone on Facebook recently asked what one line of advice people would give someone about living his/her life. I answered, "In any conflict or issue of controversy, keep forefront in your mind what goal you want to achieve." What that will typically mean is that you don't escalate, you probably ignore insults, you let people save face when they back down, when they give you even some of what you want you thank them, and you don't gloat when you win, to name five.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Thomas writes:

I applaud your way of dealing with touchy situations. Some of us (the combative types) will find your method hard to emulate. There's a theory that behavior is mainly genetic (http://quillette.com/2015/12/01/why-parenting-may-not-matter-and-why-most-social-science-research-is-probably-wrong/), which would explain my own combativeness. But when I stifle myself and behave as you did, I find that it usually pays off.

PJ writes:

Add in a little self-deprecating humor to that list and you have succinctly summarized how I interact with most people most of the time. In my experience it is easy to do and works very well. What puzzles me more is why you don't see this kind of approach taken more often - particularly at restaurants where the servers will ALWAYS have the last laugh.

Dan Hill writes:

And it helps to be Canadian, eh. They are, on average, much less aggressive that Americans, at least in my experience.

I remember bumping into a guy in a bar in Ottawa causing him to spill his beer. He apologized to me though it was clearly my fault (I bought him another beer). In the average American bar he probably would've taken a swing at me.

Mark Barbieri writes:

I forwarded this to my wife because it is the same advice I've been giving her for years. I'd like it if I followed it more myself.

The Original CC writes:

Thanks for explaining, DH. I thought this was interesting:

you let people save face when they back down
THis is very useful. I'm amazed how many people fail to follow this advice.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Thomas,
I applaud your way of dealing with touchy situations.
Thanks.
Some of us (the combative types) will find your method hard to emulate.
It’s true that it came more easily to me than it seems to for others, but after years of observing, I had to ask myself in each case: what is my goal and what is the best means of achieving it? A big turning point was when I was 24 and was writing a letter to someone who had told me in a letter that because of my bad behavior in a particular situation, he no longer wanted to be friends. I still wanted him as a friend. By the time he had written the letter, I had changed my behavior in the case he was upset about, but he didn’t know about that. Another friend helped me draft the letter and, in each case where I attacked the friend I wanted to keep, the advising friend asked “What’s your goal?” Writing that letter without a single attack was one of the hardest things I ever did. But the friend who had rejected me lock, stock, and barrel came back into the fold and, 40 years later, we are still good friends.
There's a theory that behavior is mainly genetic (http://quillette.com/2015/12/01/why-parenting-may-not-matter-and-why-most-social-science-research-is-probably-wrong/), which would explain my own combativeness. But when I stifle myself and behave as you did, I find that it usually pays off.
And there you are: in most cases that don’t call for fight or flight, and even in some cases that do, you do have the power.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Dan Hill,
And it helps to be Canadian, eh. They are, on average, much less aggressive than Americans, at least in my experience.
I hear that so much that maybe I must finally bow to the stereotype.
I forwarded this to my wife because it is the same advice I've been giving her for years. I'd like it if I followed it more myself.
Yes, and it makes you so much more powerful.
@The Original CC,
You’re welcome, and thanks for asking the question.

Michael stack writes:

Boy this is terrific advice. What I found when learning this for myself is that not only do situations de-escalate, but it's also easier to remain calm in all kinds of unrelated situations. Practice makes perfect.

Additional insight - it is really hard to get angry with somebody who's isn't simultaneously getting angry and escalating; in fact, it is nearly impossible and makes the escalator look unreasonable and unhinged.

Great post. I think it would be cool if you shared more stories like this.

Brad Sallows writes:

Aka "Selection and Maintenance of the Aim".

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