How to Lose an Airline Seat … and Win a Friend at the IRS

by | Sep 11, 2016

It’s never smart to offend someone who has discretionary authority over your life.

Such as the ticket agent I watched as she juggled an overbooked flight.

She was waiting for two couples who had confirmed seats but had not yet appeared at the gate. I was on standby and would not make the flight if they arrived on time.

Just minutes before the deadline, we heard footsteps running down the hallway. When an out-of-breath couple appeared, the agent asked if they were the “Smiths.”

“Yes,” the woman responded. “Our friends the “Jones” are right behind us, and YOU WILL HOLD THEIR SEATS FOR THEM!!!”

I could tell from the agent’s face where this was headed.

Offended by the woman’s challenging tone of voice, the agent calmly looked at her watch and said, “If they’re here in ten seconds, they’ll have their seats. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 … too late.”

Then she turned to me and another standby customer, smiled and handed us boarding passes, saying, “Two seats just opened up for you. Have a nice flight!”

The “Smiths” boarded the flight a minute behind me, arguing heatedly over whether it was her fault that their friends had lost their seats. I could not help but think how vividly she had just illustrated the warning of Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

IRS 1Contrast that incident with the day I had to call the Internal Revenue Service for guidance on completing our ministry’s application for tax-exempt status.

It took me twenty frustrating minutes to work through several dialing sequences that ended in a long holding period. When a live IRS agent finally came on the line, her voice was as cold and mechanical as an answering machine.

As tempted as I was to unload my frustration on her, I knew it would be counterproductive. So I silently prayed, “Lord, please give me grace to bless and encourage this woman.”

As he answered my prayer, I was able to thank the agent for taking my call and politely share my questions. Noticing how quickly and smoothly she cited the relevant IRS regulations, I said, “Wow, you know the regulations by heart. How did you memorize so much complicated information?”

There was a momentary pause while she processed my unexpected praise. When she spoke again, her voice was as warm as an old friend’s. She described the standard training process and the ways she had personally studied and organized the information she needs to respond to callers’ questions.

I kept drawing her out with more personal questions and affirmation, as well as requests for advice (“How long have you worked for the IRS?” “What do you enjoy most about your job?” “Would you encourage someone just out of college to get a job with the Federal government?” “Based on your experience, what three things would you advise me to do every year to make sure we are complying with the requirements for a tax exempt organization?”)

Pleased to have someone show genuine interest in her training, work and experience, she gladly engaged in a conversation that went well beyond the technical information I needed. She even asked me about my organization, which opened the door for me to share not only about relational wisdom but also about the person who provides the inspiration and model for our work, Jesus.

To my surprise, she ended the call with an unusual gift:

“I know you had to go through a lot of dialing and waiting on hold before reaching me. Let me give you my direct number so that the next time you need help you can get through to me right away.”

Her response was a perfect illustration of the wisdom principle given in Proverbs 22:11: “He who loves purity of heart, and whose speech is gracious, will have the king [which includes IRS agents] as his friend.”

DRW 2.0 (200x200)– Ken Sande

PS – My encounter with the IRS agent is a simple illustration of how to practice the SERVE acrostic in order to improve your ability to be more other-aware and other-engaging. To learn how to improve these skills in your life, check out our new online course, Discovering Relational Wisdom 2.0, which you can study individually on your tablet or smartphone or on a TV with friends in your living room.

Reflection Questions:

  • What might “Mrs. Smith” have done to reverse the damage she had caused by offending the ticket agent?
  • People with “discretionary authority” have broad latitude on how to apply rules and make decisions that affect our lives. This can include ticket agents, teachers, police officers, building inspectors, judges and a myriad of other civil officials. Why is it unwise to be disrespectful to such people? Apart from wanting to receive favorable treatment from such people, why should Christians always seek to treat such people respectfully? (see Romans Rom. 13:1-2; 1 Pet. 3:15)
  • Colossians 4:5-6 says, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Describe a person you know who consistently lives this principle out in daily life. What character qualities does the person model that you’d like to develop more in your life?
  • How could learning how to practice the SERVE acrostic during normal, everyday interactions be of major benefit when you are dealing with a person and an issue that could dramatically change the course of your life?

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