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Nice Guys Fight on a Plane

Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation

Two guys across the aisle from me on a crowded plane, still at the departure gate, in a 2-person row, had the following conversation:
Glasses Guy: ”Can I have a little bit of that armrest?”

Big Guy: ”No.”

Glasses Guy: Surprised, “Could you just give me like half of it?”

Big Guy: Firmly, “I’m not moving.”

Glasses Guy: Incredulously and sarcastically, “Wow, you’re a really nice guy!”

Big Guy: ”So are you.”

Glasses Guy: Genuinely seeming to want to clarify, “Actually. . . I am!”

Silence prevailed between them for the 30 minutes we all remained on the plane (till we were informed we had to switch planes due to a mechanical problem).

Around 20 minutes later as we all waited by the gate for our new plane, as I happened to be sitting next to Big Guy, Glasses Guy came up and said to Big Guy,”Hey, I just want to wish you a good trip” and he seemed to mean it. Big Guy said, “you too,” and seemed cautious but open to exchanging expressions of good will.

Not having to mediate, I let my biases run wild, and I decided Glasses was a hothead, though maybe otherwise a nice guy, and Big was a jerk. That is, until I set down in the airport near Big, and he seemed to be interacting with others as a nice guy would (he even seemed a bit sheepish -I assumed he felt guilty about how he’d behaved on the plane). Then I was confused, and switched to assuming that Big had just been having a really bad day and had been especially frustrated (as I was) with all the hassles and crowding involved in flying.

What do I make of this experience? Well, as we all like to do, I use it to reinforce my pre-existing beliefs. Here’s how I see this story fitting into the transformative theory of conflict.

It’s the disputing, not the dispute. Interaction matters, even more than the “subject” of the dispute. Though the armrest started the conflict, the focus quickly became whether each of them was a nice guy. Big, despite his desire for the entire armrest, didn’t like the implication that he wasn’t a nice guy, so lashed out by suggesting that Glasses, wasn’t nice either. Glasses cared enough about that question to make the point that he IS a nice guy. After the armrest was no longer an issue, it wasn’t over. It only got to a better place when they both put effort toward clearing the air between them. These two were strangers, but they each cared about how the other felt about them; each wanted the other to know them as a nice guy. Each apparently preferred to actually be nice, when they had some time to think about it.

People have the capacity and the preference to act with strength and responsiveness. I, myself, had dismissed Big as a jerk, and Glasses as hothead. I would have imagined that if they had the time and inclination to have me help them have a conversation, they would have gotten to a better place. But even I didn’t think it would happen without some help. I was wrong; they got to a better place entirely on their own.

It’s easy, but often not helpful, for outsiders to think in terms of rights or problem-solving: When I heard the dispute breaking out, I quickly decided that Glasses had the right to some access to the armrest. Each guy had one armrest all to himself, and there was one between them. It seemed fair that they either take turns with that one or each use half of it. I don’t know, but I suspect Big would have disagreed with my ruling, and that if he were to comply with it, it would come at further cost to Glasses. I also suspect that my thoughts about either the time-sharing or space-sharing option, or possible relocation of either party, would have missed the point. The more central point was that neither liked how they were being treated by the other, nor did they like how they, themselves, were behaving.

Please share in the Comments area your stories of conflict where the interaction was what counted.


Dan Simon

Dan is a leader in the field of transformative mediation. He is the author of the chapter on divorce mediation in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation's ("ISCT") TRANSFORMATIVE MEDIATION SOURCEBOOK. He is a Past Chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association's Alternative Dispute Resolution Section. He served… MORE >

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