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Business Skills Can Help You Excel, Even At 10,000 Feet

Rear View of Air Stewardess Explaining Aeroplane Safety to Passengers
Rear View of Air Stewardess Explaining Aeroplane Safety to Passengers

I am writing this article on a return flight from Los Angeles, where I am currently participating in an exciting documentary movie project about coaching. Passenger boarding here in L.A. just took place through the first class entry door, and so I happened to walk past Marc Forster and Christoph Waltz who are apparently both on their way to attending the Zurich Film Festival. "What a nice surprise," I think while taking my seat -- in the next section of the plane.

The cabin crew on this SWISS flight is doing a great job and I am happy to see a few old colleagues among them. I am saying this because I myself used to lead cabin crews for Swissair, the former Swiss national airline. The picture below shows me working in first class on a Boeing 747 heading for Hong Kong -- 20 ago. Obviously, back then the entire entertainment system consisted of one large screen that needed to be stowed away for take-off and landing. Good old times.

For seven years I took care of passenger safety and satisfaction of the international clientele on board international short and long-haul flights, first as a flight attendant first and later as a Maître de Cabine (purser) together with my crews. My radius of action ranged from Anchorage in the west, all the way to Tokyo in the east.

It was an amazing and exciting time during which I learned a lot about myself, about human beings and about successful human interaction. Today, my cients benefit from my practical experience in this period of my life, when it comes to effective leadership, teamwork and customer interaction.

We could say that the situation at 10,000 metres cruising altitude, in a narrow tube with dozens or hundreds of other humans, depending on the aircraft type, represents a small organization. Up there, we find everything we find in a "normal" company: direct customer contact, collaboration within and between teams and, of course, leadership on various levels.

This made the job a very special one to me. Once all passengers were on board, catering and load-sheet checked, the aircraft door was closed. From that moment on, it was "my little company" and together with my crew I was responsible for maximum passenger safety, service excellence and customer satisfaction.

The working conditions are special: Various studies show that up to half of the passengers on board a plane experience some sort of distress. The effects are diverse: some become very talkative, others become very quiet and some begin to drink in order to cope with their tension.

The challenge for the crew is that problems -- especially interpersonal ones -- need to be anticipated, identified at an early stage and, if necessary, solved on the spot. Intercultural aspects have to be considered and relationships maintained. You simply cannot escalate or get external help. This represents particular challenges in leadership, collaboration and customer contact. The key in all three settings is the ability to be in touch, to build and maintain relationships.

Obviously, this is true in normal operations, but it is especially true when both the level of stress and the potential for conflict increase. The basis for this ability is a well-established contact with oneself, or in other words, a high level of personal competence.

Without that, well-developed interpersonal competence is beyond reach. Obviously, on board a full passenger airplane this can be safety-relevant. For many years, the number of so-called unruly passengers has continuously been on the rise. These are passengers who do not adhere to the rules or behave in an inappropriate, aggressive, or even violent way towards any member of the crew or other travelers. I definitely had my share of experience in this regard!

The same principles apply in any other setting in which people want to achieve something together: Imagine any situation in which you end up in a conflict with a direct report, a colleague or a customer. Chances are that unconscious behavioural patterns are triggered on both sides. Especially when emotions boil up, change the whole biochemistry in the body, and therefore the ability for rational thinking is drastically impaired.

And so, both parties involved react to each other's behaviour and no one is aware enough of what is happening in order to break this vicious cycle. Best case, both fail to get out of this reactive pattern in a satisfactory way. Worst case, it all ends up in an escalation and both parties do or say things they will later regret when they have become "conscious" again.

1. Be prepared

Obviously, it is helpful to become aware of potential internal or external triggers before you even enter such a situation and get locked into a reactive pattern. Think of what may cause you to react in an unfavorable way. This will increase chances that you recognize those triggers early enough so you can think of how to handle them adequately.

Think of possible remarks or behaviours in other people that would typically annoy or provoke you. Then think of how you can either not react to them or else respond to them in a non-violent and de-escalating way.

2. Create room for conscious choice

If you are able to be and remain (self-)aware enough in the situation, so that you notice what is happening within yourself and in the other person, you can make a conscious decision to behave in a de-escalating way. By doing so, you will invite your conversation partner to do the same. E.g. if you are mindful enough to notice upcoming anger at an early stage, you can either consciously control it or express it in a controlled way that maintains the relationship -- before you explode like a dysfunctional pressure cooker and potentially cause a lot of damage.

In other words: kill the monster while it is still little. For this, you mainly need enough room for consciously choosing your own behavior. E.g. it can be helpful to imagine a red traffic light and tell yourself "STOP!" Breathe deeply and ask yourself, "Is it worth it?" Like this, it may well be that you decide not to react at all or in a new and non-aggressive way.

It is, by the way, enough if just one person is and remains conscious enough not to be drawn in to the downward spiral of action and reaction. Through appropriate and non-violent behaviour, the other person can be invited to take off the self-protective mask so that authentic contact and true dialogue become possible again.

It goes without saying that this level of self-competence does not only positively affect leadership, teamwork and customer interaction, but also all other areas of life outside the business world. A coach can be a helpful companion in developing these skills.

About the author: Operating out of Switzerland, Thomas Gelmi stands for more efficacy in leadership, teamwork and customer interaction by developing InterPersonal Competence. More information can be found at


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