Most likely by now, you've heard about the United Airlines story that went viral over the weekend.

Here are the facts, as summarized by The New York Times:

  • United Airlines barred two teenage girls from boarding a flight on Sunday morning and required a child to change into a dress after a gate agent decided the leggings they were wearing were inappropriate.
  • The incident was first reported on Twitter by Shannon Watts, a passenger at the airport who was waiting to board a flight to Mexico...Ms. Watts described the situation in a series of tweets before her flight to Mexico took off. By the time she landed her tweets had been shared widely, often accompanied by sharp criticism directed at the airline.
  • Jonathan Guerin, a spokesman for United, confirmed that two teenage girls were told they could not board a flight from Denver to Minneapolis because their leggings violated the company's dress code policy for "pass travelers," a company benefit that allows United employees and their dependents to travel for free on a standby basis.
  • Mr. Guerin said pass travelers are "representing" the company and as such are not allowed to wear Lycra and spandex leggings, tattered or ripped jeans, midriff shirts, flip-flops or any article of clothing that shows their undergarments.

In the past, someone like Ms. Watts might witness what they perceive as an injustice and complain about it to their traveling companion. They might go up to the gate agent afterwards to explain how they felt the situation was handled inappropriately, or even make a formal complaint to the airline.

But in today's world, the common response is much different.

Today, many people immediately take their complaint to social media, with the potential to be shared by millions of people. But while some may see this as an appropriate way to draw attention to injustice, it creates major problems--for both sides.

Ms. Watts method of addressing United, as well as the way United's social media team chose to respond, make a perfect case study to illustrate what not to do when trying to persuade, convince, or influence others.

Here are a few lessons:

1. Short term, emotional responses hurt your cause in the long run.

Ms. Watts initial tweets have rallied countless supporters, while at the same time drawing out vicious opposition. While it's true that she has started an important discussion, I'd argue that the way she went about it actually damages her cause more than she realizes.

For example, it's very easy to get others emotionally involved with our cause, if they feel similarly to us. But inspiring a mob to attack another person (or in this case, organization's) point of view does little good in the end.


Because when others are attacked, their emotions kick in and put them in a mode of defense. Or, they go on the offensive, and attack their opponent's views in return.

The end result are people on very opposite ends of the fence, digging into their position and decreasing the likelihood that they will back down or budge.

In other words, you get politics.

2. Responses dictated by strong emotion tend to be irrational.

A perfect example of this can be seen in professional model Chrissy Teigen's contribution to the discussion, via Twitter:

"I have flown united before with literally no pants on. Just a top as a dress. Next time I will wear only jeans and a scarf."

That single tweet has amassed over 71,000 likes. But is this type of reasoning likely to convince anyone with opposing views to change his or her mind?

3. Details and context are easily lost as a story spreads.

Many were initially outraged at what they perceived as a double standard, since a man who seemed to be with the girls was allowed to board in shorts, while the girls were kept off the plane.

However, United spokesman Jonathan Guerin confirmed Monday "the man in shorts was not with the girls, he was a paying customer," as reported by the Associated Press. "United doesn't let men wear shorts while traveling on employee passes," added Guerin. "The gate agent stopped the leggings-wearing girls because they were using passes."

Guerin also stated that "the girls (teenagers) were completely understanding" and that "no one was upset at the gate."

4. United's lack of empathy really hurt them.

Of course, United's could have handled this situation better as well.

Their initial responses on social media, which robotically repeated the phrase "UA shall have the right to refuse passengers if they are not properly clothed via our Contract of Carriage," is cold and lacks empathy, and did little to convince opponents to see their side of the story.

We hear responses like this every day: Think of when you go to a manager or colleague to complain about a problem, and they respond by quoting company rules.

The main point here isn't about establishing right or wrong. Rather, there's a need for a listening ear, and a compassionate response. Solving the problem may still take time, but this type of response doesn't add fuel to the fire. And if it's consistent, it will build trust and goodwill in the long run.

A More Effective Way of Persuasion

Effective persuasion involves finding a common ground with others, so that you have something to build on. It involves respectfully acknowledging the other person's feelings and concerns, instead of trying to obliterate them.

Sometimes, it even means dropping a conversation temporarily--and then picking back up when cooler heads prevail.

Above all, remember this:

If you really want to persuade someone to see things from your perspective, you have to begin by seeing things from theirs.