The further east I go in the world, the more I find I have to be aware of culture, conflict and methods of effective communication.  I am fortunate to be able to travel to many different places and often find that I have to use less familiar airlines and transit through some rather interesting places.  My recent experience travelling to the Caucasus reminds me that we should practice what we preach!

Imagine the scene. Me: a quivering jelly of tiredness and tension, bewildered by unexpected airline rescheduling and the glaring bright lights that only ever seem to be at airports and hospitals. After many hours in transit, I was stirred from a much needed nap by a demand that I pay $150 cash in excess baggage charges. Anyone who has ever made a long journey knows that operating on the sharp end of no sleep can make one a less than elegant communicator, and I trust will sympathise with my reply. In my half-sleeping state I said the only sensible thing that peered through the sluggish haze – “that’s ridiculous! I’m not paying!”

Unimpressed, the airline representative loomed over me with what felt like menace and snarled, “It’s your decision – either you pay or one of your bags doesn’t travel with you.” I declared the demand outrageous, insisted on seeing the policy in writing, and the representative’s supervisor in person. The conversation was not going well, feeling on my side like the spoken equivalent of a trip around the M25 on a rickety coach held together with sticky tape and lucky crossed fingers.

Waking up a little more I remembered that not only had I already paid for excess baggage all the way through to my final destination, I could produce a receipt to prove it. The fact that this was all I could produce, after the authorities had withheld my passport, baggage ticket and e-ticket information, is probably a story for another time. The airline representative asked to see my receipt, and upon reading it graciously decided to accept my claim “just this once.”

Obviously I won’t be travelling with this airline again, but what else did I learn from this? On reflection there was a real clash of cultures. We were not communicating effectively because big assumptions had been made, and we were not necessarily taking the time to really listen to each other. The incident also brought home to me how powerful an emotional response can be, and how this emotion can cloud even the most even thinking processes.

Luckily for me it all worked out and I arrived at my destination with both bags, but it did set me thinking: how many times do things not work out for poor, tired travelers?

by Ranse Howell

Ranse Howell is the Mediator and Consultant for The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR).