The Art Of Conversation

In the middle of day three of the Central Oregon 500 last week a lethal trifecta of The Varsity, a headwind, and rollers popped a few of us hacks off the back and we formed a mini peloton of the Truly Spent.

Now that we had sufficient oxygen to talk a bit, Boeing Ed from Seattle said that Boeing was requiring employees to take some forced release time. From the context, the fact that he lives on Mercer Island, already has 32 days off a year, and knows what the CEO paid for his road bikes, I deduced that Ed is upper management.

“Is the forced release time due to the 737?” I asked, before adding, “That seemed like a real clusterf$ck.” I anticipated a spontaneous reply along the lines of, “Yeah, we need to own those very unfortunate mistakes.” Instead I got a one second pause, which was more than long enough for me to realize I had unintentionally offended him so I instantaneously inserted a comma in the conversation before adding, “Or has the press mischaracterized things?”

What a recovery, because BE said something to the effect of “Yeah, they do, if you don’t make safety you’re most important priority you don’t even have an airlines.” I immediately thought about how work cultures can become all encompassing, making employees susceptible to groupthink.

Had BE been a friend I might have busted his balls a bit, asking for specific examples of hyperbolic or inaccurate coverage of the problematic plane, but as an acquaintance I lobbed him a slow pitch right over the plate. Which he clearly appreciated.

Why did I wuss out? Because we have no foundation on which to dig deeper. No shared history meaning insufficient trust that despite awkward differences of opinion, there’s still ample respect for one another. That’s the difference between talking to acquaintances and friends. With acquaintances, who we see only sporadically, we often need to finesse things, to keep things copacetic. In contrast, conversations with friends should be characterized by more honesty and depth.

My split second salvaging of that brief conversation at 20 mph had nothing to do with our current preoccupation with analytics and algorithms. It was based entirely on intuition and feel. Art not science. I was able to quickly rebound because my preferred teaching methodology is discussion leadership and after three and a half decades of leading group discussions I’ve learned to read not just people’s spoken words, but their pauses, sighs, eyes, body posture, and general frames of mind.

Can that sort of thing be taught? I’m not sure. If someone were serious about seeking feedback they could definitely improve at it, but it innately comes more easily for some than others.

Brief Insanity, Compliments of Alaska Airlines

Previously I’ve written about one of my favorite reads of 2011—William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Irvine has a sub-section titled, “Anger—on overcoming anti-joy”. Here are my notes from that sub-section, mostly excerpts I wanted to remember:

Anger is another negative emotion that can destroy our tranquility. Seneca referred to it as “brief insanity” and said, “No plague has cost the human race more. A waste of precious time.” Punishment should be “an expression not of anger but of caution.” Calm correction; not retribution, but instruction (160). Need to fight our tendency to believe the worst about others and to overreact to little things. The more we eschew comfort and harden ourselves, the more likely we are to not get angry (161-2). Best counter is humor, choosing to think of the bad things that happen to us as being funny rather than outrageous (162).

We should contemplate the impermanence of the world around us.  When angered by something we should pause to consider its cosmic (in)significance. Also, remember our behavior also angers others. Seneca, “We must agree to go easy on one another. We should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice, and slow our pace of walking, then our anger will have dissipated.” (163). When unsuccessful at controlling our anger we should apologize, which has a calming effect on us and lessens the chance we’ll make the same mistake in the future (164). Seneca, “make yourself a person to be loved by all while you live and missed when you have made your departure.” (165).

This is the story of my recent epic failure at applying these insights. We were flying from Seattle to Santa Barbara to visit the in-laws for five days. My father-in-law was nice enough to drive an hour and a half to pick us up. Right before our Alaska Airlines plane was supposed to board we learned the gate had been changed. By the time we got to the new gate, discussed whether we needed to check in, and learned the “plane had been downsized,” we were what the airlines refer to as “shit-out-of-luck”. Our seats no longer existed and the flight was way overbooked. In years past airlines would offer more and more coin until enough people agreed to give up their seats. In the new economy, Alaska stops at 3 bills, and then says to their shit-out-of-luck flyers, “Sorry.”

Doesn’t matter that your father-in-law has already left to pick you up or that you paid Pujols-type money for the tickets. Agent, “We’ll fly you to L.A. and bus you to Santa Barbara.” To which Seneca would have said, “Wonderful, I love Los Angeles and the bus ride promises to be scenic.” But in a major setback to my pratice of Stoicism, I succumbed to “brief insanity” and said, “You’re kidding right?!!! You have to get more people off the plane!” “Sir, I can’t physically remove people.” “I’m not asking you to physically remove anyone, you have to offer them more incentives.” “We don’t do that.”

That initial exchange was first base in what turned into an inside-the-park anti-joy homerun. I didn’t swear, but got progressively more heated as I rounded second and was waved into third by the agent’s total lack of empathy. I told her I knew she wasn’t to blame for the last minute plane change, but her employer was and it was their policies that were so aggravating. Agent, “Sir, you’re not the only one ‘shit-out-of-luck’ (paraphrasing).” Turning to the twenty somethings behind me who were probably texting friends, “At Alaska gate. Out of a seat. Old dude has totally snapped, quite entertaining. LOL,” I said, “I can’t help it if I’m not as passive as everyone else.”

Finally, completely fed up with me, she said I should go to the Alaska customer service desk. Three hours later, four travel vouchers safely tucked away in the iPad case, we were on our way to Burbank. A high-speed “life flashing before your eyes” Supper Shuttle trip later, we were in Santa Barbara a mere five hours behind schedule.

In hindsight, given Alaska Airline’s short-sighted, bottom-line, customer-be-damned business practices, I don’t regret acting a fool. I do though regret two things. I regret my fellow customers rolled over probably assuring that Alaska will disrupt more travelers plans, and I regret I didn’t seek out the agent after returning from the customer service center. I would have apologized for taking my anger out on her instead of the spreadsheet reading Alaska Airlines execs who probably make ten to a hundred times more than her.