The challenges of air travel were highlighted once again in the news this week. A woman traveling in the crowded economy section of a domestic flight reclined her seat. The man sitting behind her did not appreciate having his space invaded by the person sitting in front of him, so he gently punched her seat. Over and over again. He didn’t punch her, and he did not punch the seat hard enough to hurt her, but as is clearly visible in the video she captured of the event, he did punch the seat hard enough to move the seat. Repeatedly. Annoyingly.

I travel often, and I know the challenges of air travel well. There are lines to check into the flight, lines to get through security, and lines to get on the plane. The seats are rigid and uncomfortable. Personally, I am barely 5′ 6″, and I find the minimal legroom space to be challenging. I see tall people wiggle their way into the seats, and I don’t know how they achieve any level of comfort at all. Tensions are high as everyone settles in for the long flight ahead.

This is where we have an opportunity to recognize the power of our own empathy, because when you sit in an airplane seat, every control you have, every action you take, affects the people around you. Almost every action you take on an airplane affects the people around you. Think about it.

The person sitting in the row in front of you has the power to diminish your space when they recline their seat. They are trying to get more comfortable, or are just trying to get as much space as possible. As a result, you have less space. The tray table is poking into your belly, and you can’t even cross your legs.

Now, as you decide whether you want more comfortable, you have the power to decide if you want to reduce the space of the person sitting behind you, thereby impacting the comfort of that person.

If you turn on your reading light, the person next to you who is trying to sleep must turn away so the light does not shine in their eyes. If you use your tray table, the person next to you can’t get out to use the bathroom.

Every person on an airplane really needs to consider the comfort and feelings of their entire row, the entire row in front of them, and the entire row behind them. That can be anywhere from 6 to 12 people, depending on the type of plane and configuration of the seating.

Since the video was released of the man punching the seat in front of him, there has been a healthy debate about who was right and who was wrong, the general consensus being that we should not recline our seat, unless absolutely necessary. But, since the seats do in fact recline, we all need to allow for that possibility. The seats recline…so be prepared.

And then there is the power of empathy, because there is so much to be gained not only when we consider the comfort of those around us, but also when feel sympathy for those around us. Why did the person in from of us recline their seat? Why is that snack table blocking my way?

Working Out Loud author John Stepper writes beautifully about empathy in his wonderful blog article “The Empathy Test.”

“When something irritates you, you can react almost instinctively with negatives emotions and a label. How rude! What a jerk! It can ruin a part of your day, and often you’re completely wrong.

Each interaction – in the car, via email, at the cafe – is a chance to take the Empathy Test, to pause and ask yourself “Is what I’m thinking absolutely true?” and “How might this look from their perspective?”

It is probably not fair to be upset at someone for reclining their seat if they are very tall. Maybe they have a physical challenge that is not clearly evident, and reclining their seat provides necessary comfort and relief.

The person behind you may then get upset as you try to give yourself a couple of inches of extra room, because they have absolutely no way of knowing what happened two rows in front of them.

As a child, I used to imagine that every time anyone in the world moved to a new house, everyone else in the world had to move as well, just to make room. Kind of like a worldwide Tetris game, or a massive display of falling dominos. Flying on an airplane is kind of like that. Most every action you take is going to affect someone else. If you put your seat back, then the person behind you may do the same, thereby potentially impacting the person behind them.

Rather than punching the seat, practice a little empathy. Put yourself in the place of the person in front of you. They may be big. They may have challenges you are not aware of. They may have had a terrible day, and they are looking to control even one tiny aspect of their environment. The person in the row in front of them may have reclined their seat, and you have no idea.

Don’t punch the seat. Pause. Take a deep breath. We are all in this together.

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