Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Help! I’m Stuck on an Airplane and Need Some Skills

Dear Joseph,

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?

Anger Management

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.


Develop Your Crucial Skills

Image for

What's Your Style Under Stress?

Discover your dialogue strengths and weaknesses with this short assessment.

Take Assessment

Image for

Subscribe Now

Subscribe to the newsletter and get our best insights and tips every Wednesday.


Image for

Ask a Question

From stubborn habits to difficult people to monumental changes, we can help.

Ask a Question

21 thoughts on “Help! I’m Stuck on an Airplane and Need Some Skills”

  1. stephen

    “I’m sorry you feel that way” and the similiar “I’m sorry if you took offense” can be understood as “I’m sorry that you’re wrong…..” and doesn’t seem to work well for me. Saying you’re sorry, to me means that if it were possible you’d do something differently next time. In these sorts of cases, that’s rarely the case.

    1. Robert

      I agree with Stephen. I think you apologize when you don’t mean it (and this case I would definitely NOT mean it) a lot of people can sense you are not sincere. Maybe I’m too unkind, but I don’t feel it’s necessary for me to make a person feel better about them being rude. My experience has been that unless you are willing to do what they want, talk to them, put up with the noise etc., they are not going to be happy, but it’s not my responsibility to make them happy. So I choose ignore. However, I disagree that ignoring a person after you have politely declined to engage is punishing that person. It’s just choice to not engage. The experience with the alcoholic is evidence that ignore would have been the best choice in that situation too.

    2. Andrew

      Overall, I really liked Joseph’s article. For me the three classes of responses were ‘sliced and diced’ a little differently than what has become a simple rubric for me. I tend to think of a continuum of responses that go from ignore, to acknowledge, to accept, to apologize. Ignoring doesn’t typically work well accept for when it’s warranted due to personal safety or such a brief encounter that it doesn’t make sense. When I Acknowledge where someone else is at or what I might have done to trigger their reaction (bearing in mind their reactions are truly theirs to manage) that seems to work best in most situations. The greater the need or the more valuable the relationship, then I am discerning what amount of personal Acceptance or Apology is needed. I tend to find myself evaluating the latter two only as an internal exercise in my self-assessment, and am only likely to actually use that language with someone close to me or only rarely in the situations that are called for it outside of close relationships.

  2. Sylvie Racine


    Always great to read you, thanks to all the team for the great work. I’ve been a follower since Crucial conversations.

    Stuck in an aiplaine, I can relate too. The fourth attitude that is sadly in use in these situations is to complain. As I said, I relate. Some of us north-americans, well bred to be polite at all costs and feel ashamed at any sign, find solace in complaining. This is my ironic way of saying that the trap is too tempting and feels so comforting. Venting is good, but sanity tends to dilute. This is the child in us and the ego that team to give us an impression of power that doesn’t last and leaves a sad taste afterwards.

    There is no better way to learn than to be in the experience, I totally agree. Flying in two weeks, this will be a nice topic to share with the occupant of the seat next to me !

    Sylvie Racine, coach, Montreal

  3. Toni

    I am going to echo what Stephen said above. “I’m sorry you feel that way” is one of the examples of a BAD apology we use when teaching Make it Safe in Crucial Conversations. So what gives?

  4. Stephanie

    Thank you for this post, it helped clarify things for me, however, I have found myself in situations where family members were verbally berating me because they didn’t like my choices. I acknowledged how they were feeling and tried to explain my reasons, but they continued to be verbally abusive. I felt there was nothing left for me to do, except remove myself from the situation, which would seem to be “ignore” in your post and something that is undesirable. On one hand I understand, but on the other, the other people refused to understand/compromise or in any way work with me to resolve the the issue. It was “their way or the highway.” I chose the highway, because their way was impossible for me to live with.

    It is a difficult situation to live with, but they have repeatedly made it clear that the only way they will tolerate my presence is if I conform to their conditions and requirements. Something I cannot do.

    Comments, thoughts? Am I understanding your post correctly?

  5. Doreen Boettcher

    I was thinking that there may be an opportunity for a contrasting statement in both scenarios. “I am not I don’t want to visit with you; I am saying there are things that I must complete before this plane lands. I’d be ready and able to speak with you then.” Not sure what the statement might be for the first one, but I think there’s a good one out there!

  6. Lee Motley

    what a great article! The Ignore-absorb-acknowledge concept is new to me, yet opened my eyes to a new approach to thinking, and acting. Thanks!

  7. Peter Eastman

    First – regarding Anger Management’s story.
    I have discovered that if I want to ask a stranger to change their behavior, I may need to establish some rapport first. Small talk when we first sit down and a cordial exchange of some stories leads to a shared experience and a realization that both of us are connected human beings. That goes a long way to generating cooperation from someone when I ask them to stop doing something they want because it bothers me. Otherwise, I am just being a selfish jerk – in their eyes – not someone who they realize needs my sleep and a very small sacrifice from them.

    Second – to Joseph’s story. For a number of years, I did a lot of flying – have I got stories! But I learned to see patterns. As soon as you started your story, I saw this pattern: she is excited, nervous, or fearful – either about the flight itself or the event. So THAT is what I acknowledge; “Enough about me – you seem a little keyed up; is everything OK or are you just excited about your trip?”

    That would have elicited the real story, real time and upfront. You could then could bring all of your excellent empathetic listening skills, which would have helped her take the edge off, and probably would have helped her self-regulate without alcohol.

    However, once I was in the situation that Joseph was in, I would like to think I would have tried to recognized that the situation had changed. It no longer was a situation of someone inconveniencing me, but a situation where I had misread her intent, and responded badly to the situation, I felt bad about that, and would like to repair it -AND get my work done

    I would have tried something like this: ‘Because I fly a lot, I sometimes have to use my airplane seat as a mini-office. Because I had work on my mind, I was thoughtless and rude to you, and I apologize. I can do my work later in the flight. Can we start over? Are you flying for fun or profit?’ or something else lighthearted, disarming or charming.

    I realized some time ago that although it is not always my job to make things better, it is ALWAYS my job not to make things worse – even by accident.

  8. Anon

    Couple of thoughts. The word sorry does not = apology. However many equate the two. When they hear “I’m sorry” the expectation is you are apologizing for an offense. What they want when they have taken offense (intended or not) is an apology because they have told themselves it’s your fault. When that doesn’t happen it may escalate. Rather than apologizing for someone else’s feelings, acknowledging them in a different way may help. “It seems what I said/did disappointed you. That wasn’t my intent. Right now I xzy, I hope you understand” may have de-escalated the situation with the alcoholic woman. Then again, it may not have helped but I have found this to be more effective than telling someone – especially a person who wants me to take responsibility for how they feel ~ I’m sorry you are having unpleasant feelings. It may be well intended but can be received as patronizing.

    A suggestion when flying… if I need to sleep I bring ear plugs (the wax ones that mold best), a headset for white noise, an eye mask and a pillow. Asking a noisy seatmate to pipe down (not matter how politely) has a 50/50 chance of making the situation worse for me since it’s obvious I’m trying to sleep.

    Your question was “did not know how to respond to get her to stop. What could I have done differently?” If asking her politely to be more quiet didn’t work I would have asked the attendant if there was another seat open where I could go and sleep because I cannot control another’s behavior no matter what I say to them/moving might have increased my chances of getting the sleep I wanted.

  9. Clifford Spoonemore

    I have a long flight ahead of me at the end of April. This will be a good chance to practice being prepared for the flight. We usually make sure we have food, drink, entertainment, luggage, tickets and other personal items for the trip. This article shows that I also need to make sure I’m in the correct state of mind for the trip. Knowing you are going to interact with other individuals does not mean you are ready to interact with other individuals. Be ready……

    1. Lindsay & Hobson

      Thanks for your comment and perspective. You added that extra cherry on top for me by pointing out that the correct state of mind to navigate public spaces requires prep.

  10. Sally

    Something I don’t think has been considered yet is to give up what you want in order to fill the other person’s need even if for a little while. For example, not nodding to sleep and asking the person what they are listening to that is so funny; this would get the person on your side and they might then be more mindful of you and your needs. When you discount the other person’s need you are essentially telling them that they aren’t important. In the example of the person who wanted to talk you could have taken more time and asked her about herself and her travels. This shows her that she is important too and then she may have been willing to be quiet while you accomplished some work.

  11. deanna seaman

    What a lovely article. Thanks for posting. Super useful anywhere – kitchen at work, car ride, plane, waiting room. Stay in acknowledge.

  12. GrizzlyBearMom

    On the way in today I stopped at a stop sign waiting to make my left. until I could travel completely through the intersection and not cause grid lock. While I was waiting, cars from the right drove across my field of vision to make left turns around me. The guy behind me wanted me to move into the field of traffic so he could drive around me. I told him i would not do so. He started honking, called me an asshole and told me to move just 5 feet. I repeated that I wouldn’t block the grid. I don’t understand why people think that behaving in a bullying manner is going to change another person’s mind.

  13. Alise Elias

    I really like this advice….

  14. H. Burns

    Why not share your concerns *discreetly* and diplomatically with an airline steward? In my experience, it’s gotten me moved to a better seat and the crew appreciated the advance warning about a potentially problematic passenger.

  15. A.M.

    My husband used to struggle when I would ask for some quiet time or space. It didn’t seem to matter how important my work was, how worn out I was from caring for a toddler with special needs and a typically developing toddler, or how I made my request. He couldn’t handle it. Turns out he not only had rejection issues, but grew up in a home where the norm was to ignore and block out people to create personal space. He thought that was more polite than asking for space. It took a counselor to help him see that his norm was not emotionally healthy. I agree 100% that if you truly were kind and respectful then you have to walk away from emotionally disproportionate responses. And travel with ear plugs and headphones!

  16. anonymous

    What total bullsh*t! Why do I even have to interact with someone I sit next to on a plane? I would have asked the stewardess to address the noise complaint or asked them to stop serving the drunk.

    1. Suzy

      Seriously? Next time you fly, please buy all the seats in your row for yourself.

  17. J Harris

    It seems, Joseph, you said, “You control what you can.” You can’t force someone else behave considerately, you can only give them the opportunity to.

Leave a Reply

Get your copies
The ideas and insights expressed on Crucial Skills hail from five New York Times bestsellers.


Take advantage of our free, award-winning newsletter—delivered straight to your inbox