Uncertainty is a breeding ground for confusion, anger, and frustration. Improve your relationships and keep yourself and others calm using these 3 ways to prevent chaos amidst uncertainty.
Uncertainty Breeds Chaos
After spending a few days visiting friends in Orlando, I flew back to NYC today (just in time for the blizzard!).
When I arrived at the gate at the scheduled boarding time, many passengers were already forming a line to board.
(Side note: is this phenomenon unique to flights from or to New York, or do people from all parts of the country get in line before the boarding call to be the first ones on the plane?)
10 minutes after the scheduled boarding time, the line had grown, but we still hadn’t started boarding.
Finally, the gate agent got on the speaker. Instead of announcing boarding, he informed us that the incoming flight had just landed and was pulling toward the gate.
He asked us to clear the space so that the passengers could deplane more efficiently. The crew would need to service the plane before we could board, so we still had a while.
The Chaos Moment
As you might imagine, his announcement caused a bit of chaos. The agent notably didn’t say how long it would be before we would start boarding.
Clearly, we would be delayed. People were annoyed.
Why wasn’t this posted on the board?
Why didn’t he announce it sooner?
The Bare Minimum
I wanted to know how much time I had to get food and use the ladies room. How far could I wander off? I assumed that at a minimum, I would have the amount of time it takes for the passengers to deplane and for the crew to clean the plane. But I didn’t know how long that takes.
I approached the desk to ask the agent.
Putting My Skills to Work
Here’s a brief snippet of our conversation.
Me: What’s the turnaround time —
Agent: I don’t know how long it will take them to get to the gate.
Me: Right. I understand. What I’m asking is, assuming the plane were at the gate right now, how long would it take —
Agent: I can’t tell you. I don’t know how long it will take for the plane to pull in.
Me: I understand that. I’m not asking that. I’m asking, in general, what’s the turnaround time from when they pull into the gate?
Agent: I don’t know.
A man standing next to me at the desk tried to be helpful. He mansplained to me that the plane can get caught in runway traffic en route to the gate.
Me (in my head): Thanks, dude. I’ve got that part down.
When I’m not getting the response I need, I always assume I’m not communicating effectively. So I slowed it down and came at my question from a different angle.
Me: I am not asking you what time we are boarding.
What I am asking is: in your experience, approximately how long does it take for them to deplane, and for the crew to clean and service the plane? I won’t hold you to it. I just want to know approximately.
This time it worked. The agent revealed that it generally takes about 15 minutes for them to deplane. And another 15 minutes to service the plane.
This didn’t need to be so difficult.
Preventing Chaos in the First Place
The agent could have eliminated the need for this conversation and for the general sense of annoyance that pervaded the passenger waiting area — and seemed to carry through to the flight — by doing a few things differently.
Here are the top three. As you read them, consider that these are things we can all do in our work and lives to better serve our clients, teams, families, and friends.
(1) Listen. Fully and Completely.
First, notice that the gate agent wasn’t listening with what my friend Joanna Lindenbaum calls “clean ears.” I’m sure that in this situation, most people approach to ask what time boarding will start. He clearly assumed that was my question, and tried to get ahead of the question by cutting me off to tell me that he didn’t know.
One of the filters that blocks us from truly hearing others is our belief that we know what the other person is going to say.
I cringe when I’m trying to have a conversation with someone who cuts me off with “I know what you’re going to say.”
No. You don’t.
And even if you do know what someone else is going to say, the moment you tell yourself you know, you stop listening. What ensues is not a conversation, but two people talking without listening. Nobody feels heard.
This happens to all of us in our work. We hear the same questions over and over, and want to get out in front with the answers. But even if we are correct in our assumptions about what the person is going to say or ask, when we think we know, we stop listening and miss the nuance. People may ask or say the same things for different reasons.
Always listen completely. You will help others feel heard, and you may be surprised by the nuance you discover when you listen fully.
(2) Create Certainty With What You Know
Second, notice that the gate agent was reluctant to answer my question. This wasn’t his only deflection; when someone else asked why the board did not reflect the delay, he said the airport updates the board.
I understand that he didn’t want to commit to a boarding time and be wrong; I know that some people would make a bigger issue of that. He likely felt that he was in a no-win situation.
That said, it’s his job to convey whatever certainty he can in that situation.
I intentionally asked him a question I knew he could answer based on his experience.
On the plane, I started reading Todd Henry’s forthcoming book, Herding Tigers. (Todd sent me a galley; the book drops on January 16, and you should definitely pre-order; Todd’s offering some sweet bonuses). In the first chapter, he writes that one of the core functions of leaders of creative teams is to create certainty and stability. I agree, and
- this is a core function of all leaders.
- leadership isn’t conferred by title alone.
The gate agent might not be a member of the airline’s leadership team. He might not be a team leader among gate agents. That doesn’t mean he is not a leader.
In his role, he is a leader of the energetic dynamics that play out at the gate. His actions, behavior, and communication style set the tone for what happens at the gate. What he does and says determines if passengers board the plane feeling calm or feeling angry and annoyed. His actions set the tone for the experience customers have with the airline. He is definitely a leader. The problem is, he doesn’t know this. (That’s another issue for another time.)
In any situation where people are relying on you for guidance and direction — whether you lead a team or you are a solo practitioner serving clients — it’s your job to convey certainty, even in the midst of uncertainty. Especially then. You don’t need all the answers. Share what you do know.
(3) Get Ahead of Questions and Objections
Third, notice that the agent’s announcement created instant chaos and uncertainty that could have been avoided if he had gotten in front of this.
Even before the boarding time, he could have announced that the plane wasn’t at the gate yet and that we would likely be delayed. He also could have announced it at the scheduled boarding time, by which time the line had already formed.
More important than when he announced it is what he could have said.
Studies show that we find waiting in line to be one of the most stressful activities. We are much more amenable to waiting — and likely to feel calmer in doing so — when we know how long we will be waiting.
Based on what the desk agent told me, the minimum amount of the delay would be 30 minutes. He could have added that detail to his announcement.
This isn’t just for the benefit of others
I imagine this is not a one-time situation for this agent. I also imagine that he feels annoyed when passengers approach to ask “how long until we board?”
He could prevent a lot of his own feelings of irritation by getting out in front of the questions and obstacles that inevitably arise in this situation.
When leading others through uncertainty, communicating what you know goes a long way to giving people the certainty they need. And it reduces your headache of having to repeatedly answer the same questions. If you know what people will ask or how they will object, get out in front of it.
This isn’t just about leadership. It’s about life.
Each of us is a leader in some aspect of our lives. But this isn’t only about leadership. This is also about the basics of effective communication. And about the basics of building real relationships.
No matter what you do — whether you are a solo practitioner, you lead a team, or you lead your family or friends, or you are merely having a conversation with a stranger, you can apply these lessons.
- Help people feel seen and heard by listening with full attention.
- Convey certainty even in the midst of uncertainty by sharing what you do know.
- Anticipate and answer questions before they arise.
These are fundamental life lessons, not just business lessons. Business and life emanate from the same place: humanity.
Apply this to your life and business
Look at your interactions over the course of a day or week, and reflect on the following:
- Where do you find yourself assuming that you know what someone will say or ask? How can you listen more fully?
- Where do you hear yourself hedging or deflecting in a response? How can you create certainty by sharing what you do know?
- What questions or objections do you expect will arise? How can you get out in front of those questions?