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Dealing with Angry Folk

When someone is angry at you, your staff or your centre, one of two things is going on: you’ve done something wrong, or the person thinks you have done something wrong. Either way, you have an issue on your hands that you will want to sort out, and for the long-term health of your centre you will want…

“The tongue weighs practically nothing, yet few are able to hold it” – fortune cookie

When someone is angry at you, your staff or your centre, one of two things is going on:

  • You’ve done something wrong, or
  • The person thinks you have done something wrong.

Either way, you have an issue on your hands that you will want to sort out, and for the long-term health of your centre you will want to do your best to resolve the problem to the satisfaction of the other party.

This does not mean giving in (see: The Customer is NOT Always Right); it means understanding what is going on, defusing any anger in a professional way and then working to find a solution

There is a point where someone’s anger may progress too far and you must put your foot down, but there is a lot that you can do before then.

Much is written on how to handle difficult customers (here’s 105 suggestions in one article!), but what skills can you apply when faced with an angry parent on the other side of your desk?

Let’s begin by trying to understand the anger monster first.

What We Should Know About ANGER.

You are going to be in a better place to handle an angry person if you can disconnect from the heat of the moment. It helps if you have a clear picture of what is going on; if you can understand the mechanics of anger.

  • Anger is not rational. When someone is angry, they get wound up in the emotion of the moment. They filter anything you say through their emotions – their right-brain hemisphere. Rationalising, problem-solving, listening and negotiating are all processed in the left side, so we shouldn’t expect an angry person to rationalise. They can’t.
  • Anger needs to ventilate. Think of anger as a tidal wave. You can do little while it’s happening; you can’t speed it up, you can’t stop it (put a lid on it) and you can’t redirect it. It just must run its course (hopefully with you on high ground!). You can’t tell a tidal wave to calm down.
  • Anger needs to be acknowledged. An angry person is communicating - not nicely, but they are trying to get their point of view across. If we don’t acknowledge their anger, we have failed to respond to their communication – like not acknowledging a friendly ‘hello, how are you?’. The angry person will feel they are being ignored or are not getting through, and they will likely redouble their efforts. An expression like "Clearly you're upset and I want you to know that getting to the bottom of this is just as important to me as it is to you" will professionally acknowledge their anger without exacerbating the situation. You haven’t agreed or disagreed.
  • The issue is not the issue! When someone is angry, what they are complaining about is often not the real issue. The trigger for their anger is, or quickly becomes, the way the issue is being handled. That $10 overcharge will become the focus of anger if the person feels ignored, not believed or not respected. “THIS IS THE THIRD TIME THIS HAS HAPPENED!!” likely translates to “I am feeling disrespected”. Make sure any solutions you offer are dealing with the real cause.
  • Your aim is rarely to win. The old sales adage goes: ‘You can’t win an argument with your customer. You can win the argument, but they are no longer your customer’. Most angry exchanges work out better for your reputation if they are resolved, not won. Trying to win takes up much more energy!

Rolling with the Punches

So, you know anger is not rational, that it needs to ventilate and be acknowledged, and the issue is not usually the real issue. You know better than to try to ‘win’.

But how do you put this into practice? How do you remind yourself in the heat of the moment?

You do it by putting this picture where you can see it!  🙂

Aikido Master

To handle unruly, angry people, you need to think like an Aikido* master!

*Aikido is a non-violent martial art that blends martial art, philosophy and religion. Proponents focus on entering and turning movements to redirect the momentum of an opponent's attack, and they use a throw or joint lock to finish (hopefully you won’t be needing those!).

Principles We Can Borrow From Aikido

  • Calm the attack. In Aikido, calming the attack is done by adopting a relaxed body posture and open hands. In a verbal attack, avoid the crossed-arms stance, lower your voice and slow your speech down. Stay centred and calm, show empathy and listen patiently. Make the first words out of your mouth “I’m sorry”: say “I’m sorry this happened”, “I’m sorry you feel that we made a wrong decision” or “I’m sorry. I can see you are very upset”. Demonstrate that you are listening and that there’s no urgency.
  • Don’t meet force with force. Aikido proponents don’t use direct attacks and do very little striking and kicking. Their aim is to manage a situation. They know forceful responses (arguing back) only escalate an attack.
  • Turn with the attacker’s force and let it go past. Aikido masters appear to move toward their opponent and trade places with them. They let the force go past and then they apply leverage. When under verbal attack, listen attentively until the person has finished, and then apply your leverage. Say, “Just to make sure I understand you properly, do you mind explaining that again, so I can take notes”, and take the person through it from the very beginning again. Nod and take notes. It’s very hard for someone to remain angry for a full second course!
  • Use quick, decisive movements to use the attacker’s force against them. Ask the person “What do you want me to do?” or “What do you think I should do?” Many times, attackers don't have an answer or even a comment (but if they do, you can see if you can use some of their ideas to relieve the problem).

And After the Anger?

When it IS your fault:

  • Apologise. Say, “No question, we are wrong” or “No question, we need to sort this out”.
  • Say what happened and why. Take the time to explain what might have caused the problem. It will go a long way to re-establishing trust.
  • Acknowledge their pain. Make a clear statement that responds to the emotional points they have raised: “We are sincerely sorry for the frustration you have felt and for the inconvenience for you and your family”.
  • Set out the steps taken. Tell them what you plan to do to make sure they don’t end up with the same situation again.
  • Ask for forgiveness. Say, “You deserve better. We are sorry, and we hope you will give us the opportunity to once again…”

When it is NOT your fault (and they’re making unreasonable demands):

  • Ask the person to justify their request or demand. This will usually sort out the silly and frivolous demands. Ask, “How did you arrive at that figure?”. Sit back and listen. If they can justify it, fine - but many won’t be able to.
  • Say nothing. Dead silence. However, make sure it’s not belligerent; maintain a calm, peaceful silence and keep eye contact. This will eventually make the attacker feel awkward and calm down (or at least stop talking!).
  • “That sounds a little high…” If the demand is ridiculous, don’t dismiss the request out of hand. Just say it ‘sounds high/low/too long etc.’ and wait. Again, let the silence do its work. Let them attempt to justify their request (or hopefully make it more reasonable).
  • Use the ‘broken record’ technique. If the person continues to demand (rant and rave), try repeating a sentence or phrase over and over again until they hear you: What I can do is… ”, “What I can do is… ”, “What I can do is… ” Repeating yourself verbatim in a non-confrontational tone will get the other person to adjust their request or stop talking (to get you to stop repeating yourself!).
  • Give a final answer and move on. If the other person continues to demand and push just get to the point and end the conversation: “I’ve given this a great deal of thought and it’s the best we can do. Any more simply won’t make sense for us” or "We appreciate hearing about your experience, but we cannot compensate you in this matter because…”. Don’t waste any more time.

Two More Lessons from Aikido

  • An Aikido master never seeks to ‘kill’ his opponent.
  • In Aikido, the opponent is considered a partner.

So, the next time you face an angry opponent think ‘Aikido’.

And glance at your picture. 🙂

Food for Thought…

  • Dealing with angry folk is a skill we can learn and apply.
  • We are better placed to deal with anger if we understand something about it: that it is not rational, it needs to ventilate and be acknowledged, and the ‘issue’ is often not the real issue.
  • Trying to ‘beat’ an angry person is not a recipe for success!
  • Aikido has much to teach us about how to handle angry people.
  • When we are at fault remember the 5 steps: be quick to apologise, explain what happened, acknowledge the pain, say how you will prevent it happening again, and ask for forgiveness.
  • When we are not at fault there are skills we can apply, but we need to be prepared to put our foot down and move on.

2 replies on “Dealing with Angry Folk”

I personally dislike conflict, so it’s nice to have some tools to use should a situation arise.

Thanks for your comments Claudia

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