Anyone working in the customer service industry can tell you one of the hardest parts is dealing with the irate customer, that customer who has seemingly saved up every ounce of disgust, annoyance, frustration, and disdain so it can be sent flying at the next unsuspecting customer service representative to answer with “Thank you for calling. How may I help you today?”
In the contact center world, defusing an upset caller is especially challenging. Great care is taken by the representative to respond effectively and appropriately to an irate customer. Not surprisingly, the same tools used to defuse angry customers can also be applied to our everyday lives in our interpersonal relationships, whether with a spouse, relative, friend, coworker, or child. Skills such as empathy, active listening, non-emotionally driven responses, and blame avoidance have a big impact in determining whether an interaction blows up in a fiery explosion, or cools off and gets snuffed out.
The first step of defusing is always to acknowledge what the upset party has stated and offer empathy. Empathy is a powerful tool. It’s the ability to place yourself in another person’s shoes to truly feel his or her frustrations as your own. Empathy is internalizing the feelings of the upset party and taking a moment to find commonalities you can share on his or her perspective of the situation. For example, the holidays are a time of joy and merriment, but can also be a time of high expectations and increased stress. Let’s say your sibling has taken on the role of holiday host for the first time and things are off to a rocky start (the turkey isn’t cooking properly, the kids are fighting mercilessly, and tensions are already mounting between Aunt Judith and Uncle Bud) and your sibling lashes out at you for not taking on the role yourself. Your first reaction might be to respond with, “You should calm down!” But remember to put yourself in your sibling’s shoes. Ask yourself, “How would I feel if I were responsible for hosting a lovely, harmonious holiday event and everything felt like it was falling apart?” A more appropriate response utilizing the tools of acknowledgment and empathy would be to respond with, “I can see you have a lot on your plate. What can I do to help?” Situation defused.
Second, active listening and asking follow-up questions are other critical elements related to our ability to demonstrate empathy appropriately. When we practice the art of active listening and asking follow-up questions, we show the other person we truly care about what he or she has to say and allow ourselves the opportunity to truly understand the issue. One of the biggest reasons people tend to get upset or stay upset is that they aren’t feeling heard. From their perspective, they are shouting and repeating the issue over and over again, but the person they are speaking with just isn’t acknowledging their concerns. This leads to great frustration. Practicing active listening allows you to truly hear what the root problem is, and asking questions allows you to further clarify and understand details that weren’t originally mentioned. In his book The 4 Essential Keys to Effective Communication in Love, Life, Work – Anywhere! author Bento Leal suggests that we “listen through the words to the essence of the message.” We can tune in to the essence of the message by noting not only the spoken words but also the look of frustration, anger, or worry written on another’s face, in their body language, or in their tone of voice. Reading between the lines like this may also help you identify the underlying cause of the frustration, even when it may not be apparent to the upset party themselves. Situation defused.
Third, ensure your own emotions aren’t impacting the words you choose to speak when responding to an upset individual. When being unfairly attacked or blamed for things, it is common to want to react to those comments by counter-attacking and immediately firing back some hurtful or accusatory statements. In his book If It Wasn’t for the Customers I’d Really Like This Job, author Robert Bacal urges us not to get trapped in the “Crisis Cycle,” the unending loop of abuse and attack. To break this cycle, don’t take the bait. Before responding, take a deep breath or two to ensure your logical brain has time to weigh in prior to your emotions driving your responses. Other tips include using the upset person’s name, responding calmly but firmly, and refocusing on the actual issue. Actively listening, acknowledging, and repeating back what the upset party has stated gives your logical brain time to process. When we couple active listening with empathetic responses, we avoid responding with hurtful statements and stop the crisis cycle. Situation defused.
A last tip is to avoid getting looped into the crisis cycle by avoiding blaming statements or “you” statements anytime you are defusing. Using words such as “you” or “your” are likely to escalate a conversation rather than cool it down. For example, responding to a complaint with “You are the only one complaining about this” won’t defuse a situation. A more helpful statement would be, “I haven’t heard this complaint before; I would like to understand more about it.” “I” statements are generally much more effective when working through a heated issue. Situation defused.
These are just a few simple tips from the contact center world to defuse those tense situations. Putting these tips into practice will help enhance your interpersonal relationships, and ultimately lead to more respectful, fulfilling relationships. Remember to channel your inner customer service representative when you need to defuse.
Megan Keiser is the Human Resources Manager for Superior Contact, a business offering outsourced contact center services. She is a member of Superiorland Toastmasters, focused on communication and leadership skills, and is certified to administer and interpret the EQi-2.0 and 360 emotional intelligence assessments.
Excerpted with permission from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Winter 2018-19 Issue, copyright 2018. All rights reserved.