I spent the majority of my high school and college years as a Market Research Interviewer — i.e., telephone survey girl. And now my husband is a Customer Relations Specialist in his company’s Retention Department — meaning his job is to call up customers who’ve canceled, find out why, and (if possible) try to get them to change their minds.
Let’s just say we both have plenty of experience dealing with angry people.
And when you’ve done it enough, you do more than just build up a thick skin — you also learn a few strategies that help bring a hostile person down to earth. Whether you’re faced with an upset client, a co-worker meltdown, or one of those bosses who communicates solely by yelling, keeping these pointers in mind can help de-escalate even the most volatile of situations.
Kill ’em with kindness. It’s hard to maintain a good rage when you’re faced with someone who insists on remaining calm, polite and reasonable. Not sickly-sweet, I’m-only-being-uber-nice-to-irritate-you-more, mind you. (We’ve all done it at one point or another.) But genuinely nice.
Let them vent. Let them know you’re on their side. Statements like, “I understand,” “That must be so frustrating,” and “Let’s see what we can do to fix this” can go a long way towards making someone feel heard and understood.
But, be firm. Be patient and empathetic — but also know where to draw the line. If someone is so irate you clearly won’t get anywhere with them, you need to politely but firmly let them know this is unacceptable. If things get out of hand, don’t be afraid to tell someone that if they can’t conduct themselves professionally, you will hang up or walk away.
Some people use anger as a battling ram, hoping to get their way simply by beating their opponent into submission. Make it clear that they won’t achieve anything by being hostile.
Resist the urge to fight back. Holding your ground and being the bigger man are all well and good — but sometimes you can’t help but feel angry when you’re being vehemently cursed at. Whatever you do, don’t resort to anger yourself. It never leads anywhere good.
Just like above, don’t be afraid to remove yourself from the situation if you start to feel too caught up. If it’s a phone call, transfer the call to someone else who can field it or ask to call the person back when you can both discuss this more rationally. If it’s an in-person confrontation, simply say you need some air before you lose your cool, and excuse yourself.
Try to respect the person. This can be difficult when someone is throwing a literal temper tantrum. But talking down to someone who’s upset only makes them more upset.
Remember that everyone is human, remember how you feel when you get upset, and force yourself to talk to the person as if they’re a reasonable, respectable adult — even if they’re acting like a screaming, out-of-control toddler.
Listen for the real problem. You might be tempted to jump in as soon as there’s a pause to counter a point, offer reassurance or explain your side. But take the time to really listen to what the person is saying.
Oftentimes people aren’t angry people for the reason we think they are. Your client may be complaining about a $2 surcharge on an invoice, but deep down, what’s really bothering him is that you haven’t been returning his calls as promptly as you should. Try reflecting back what he’s saying to get to the root of the problem: “It sounds like you’re upset with _______” or “So what you’re saying is, you’d like to see_______.”
Speak slowly. It might sound silly, but keeping your voice soft and speaking in a careful, measured tone can do wonders to diffuse a tense situation. Think of the public speaking tip that you should always speak a little slower than feels natural to you. Talking too quickly can make you sound nervous, frustrate the other person and only adds to the general air of franticness.
Don’t take it personally. If the problem isn’t something you created, remind yourself that the person isn’t mad at you directly — they’re mad at your company, at the stress of the project, at the fact that they didn’t get enough sleep last night. Distance yourself from any feelings of resentment or offense that will only add to the negativity.
But, if the problem is something you created…
Apologize, genuinely. We all make mistakes. As my boss wisely told me in my first year at the firm (after a pretty dumb mistake I’d made), “The important thing is that you acknowledge it immediately and do whatever it takes to make things right.”
This means putting on your big girl panties, your grownup hat, or whatever other metaphorical accessory you choose, and biting the bullet. Don’t make excuses. Don’t try to bargain or justify. Just apologize, genuinely and promptly, and ask what you can do to rectify the situation. In some cases, that will make you look more professional than anything else.
Let it go. Sometimes even the most seasoned customer service reps can’t hang on to that particularly irate customer. It’s OK. Just know you did your best and try not to let it get to you. (It gets easier with practice, I can promise you.)
Kelly Gurnett, a.k.a. “Cordelia,” runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.