I like W.H. Smiths. It’s one of those national institutions that gives you some reassurance that all’s well in the world. I’m always particularly grateful to find a W.H. Smith outlet open in train stations at all hours of the day to buy life’s little essentials like mineral water and a newspaper. Recently though, this simple routine experience has proven to be less than straightforward. W.H. Smith seems to have an intimate business association with the manufacturers of very large blocks of chocolate and the Daily Telegraph. At the check-out, I’m always asked if I want to buy the indecently large slab of chocolate “for just one pound” along with the things I do want to buy and have to face the dejected look of the cashier as I decline. And then there’s the Daily Telegraph/Water promotion. As I understand it, buy a Daily Telegraph and you get the bottle of over-inflated priced mineral water for free. So I arrive at the W.H. Smith check-out in Paragon Station Hull with my Guardian and over inflated priced water.
“Here’s your Daily Telegraph sir, and the water comes free” (cashier scans in the Telegraph). “Thank you, but I don’t want a Daily Telegraph” I respectfully decline. “Yes, but it’s cheaper if you take the Telegraph” says enthusiastic cashier thrusting the offending publication forward. “Yes, but I don’t want the Daily Telegraph” I explain. “I read the Guardian”. (You see my expectation as a customer at this point is for the retailer to abandon his quest to indoctrinate me with the Telegraph, take my money, and let me on my way without let or hindrance). “But I’m only trying to save you money sir” the cashier insists. At this point, I’m considering sharing with irritating cashier the fact that I wouldn’t eat chips out of said publication, and fear for my reputation if I’m spotted carrying a copy, but thinking better of it, simply say “Yes, but it’s a waste. I won’t read it”. “Well that’s OK” says cashier. “You don’t have to read it; you can just throw it away” (Actually, throwing things away in Paragon Station is not an easy option. There are no waste paper bins. Terrorist threat apparently). The queue behind me is now building and clearly enjoying the entertainment. “We’re just trying to save you money” says first cashier’s sidekick, temporarily suspending his stock opening activities to offer solidarity to his dogged colleague. I feel the red mist of customer rage beginning to fall…
I offer the copy of the Daily Telegraph to the man behind me in the England Rugby Union fleece who looks as though I’ve just offered him a bag of toxic waste. “I don’t want it mate” he says clearly offended. I attempt to conclude the sale. First cashier’s mate (with his back to me resuming his stock opening duties) mutters under his breath “Just trying to save you money sir. That’s all”. To the amusement of the crowd, I then begin my rant about customer choice, compulsory promotions, force feeding chocolate and ‘aren’t I always supposed to be right’ (being the customer). First cashier’s mate, impervious to my ranting, in tape loop mode repeats that his mission in life is “just wanting to save me money”.
This Monty Pythonesque experience won’t terminally damage my relationship with W.H. Smith but it reinforces my understanding of the basic roots of conflict. From the cashier’s perspective, he simply cannot understand the logic of someone wanting to spend more money than they need to, simply in exchange for picking up a newspaper. From my perspective, I don’t understand why he cannot see that newspapers are more than printed paper. They reflect who you are, the way you see the world. Newspapers are about the relationships you’ve established over years with the journalists and columnists, the strip cartoons and the sports pages. To say nothing about the principle of creating unsustainable levels of waste by unnecessary consumption just to “save money”. Most conflict situations are rooted in this type of misunderstanding. Which is why, when I’m dealing with conflict situations in my work as a facilitator, I try and drill down beneath the superficial veneer of disagreement to the real core of the conflict which is almost invariably routed in failure to respect the importance of respective values. I didn’t have time to explore this in W.H. Smiths and must confess I didn’t facilitate the situation particularly well (in my defence it was very early and I don’t do mornings). As long as no one discovers where I buried the body, I’m optimistic I’ve got away with it. Daily Telegraph anyone? (If you’d like to comment on this Blog, click here)