Features | May 10, 2022
Handling Difficult Conversations With Customers
Barbara Kay had an opportunity to speak with the Brand Chain community in February 2022. She shared actionable tips in her presentation, “How to De-Escalate and Effectively Communicate.” Brand Chain members can view the recording by logging into their member profile. Read on for the highlights!
How Humans are Wired
A very upset person is in an altered mental state. Strong emotion literally overwhelms the rational centers of the brain. As a result, being strictly logical with a fired-up customer doesn’t work well. It’s not your fault or your customer’s fault. Their brain is in an emotional fog. A brain flooded with emotion does not:
- Care about reason
- Respond to objectivity
- Calm down with rational discussion
Expect this reality. It’ll be much less frustrating when you remember that your customer is not being intentionally difficult. Their behavior is influenced by the way human brains are wired.
Talking to the Fired-Up
Fortunately, there are six proven communication techniques that will help you effectively de-escalate a fired-up customer.
1. Don’t Lose Your Temper
Humans are wired to protect and defend. The impulse to defend against an upset customer is automatic. The customer’s emotion fires up the emotional centers in your brain. It’s very easy to lose your temper and find yourself battling your own emotional fog. The crucial first step is to accept the customer’s emotion and not react instinctively. It’s entirely normal to feel mad, anxious, annoyed, repulsed, suspicious, deflated or alarmed. Unfortunately, normal reactions tend to escalate emotions in all parties. Instead of reacting to the anger, turn the emotional intensity down by approaching the upset customer with empathy. Empathy is the opposite of the instinctual response and stops the cycle of emotional escalation. It turns down the emotional heat and is the first step toward calming the customer.
Strong emotion clouds reason until it is released. Effectively dealing with the emotion clears the fog that blocks productive communication. After adopting an attitude of empathy, keep going with the power of reflective listening. Follow three simple steps:
- Listen carefully to both facts and feelings
- Summarize and reflect back what you heard
- Acknowledge the concerns with respectful empathy
Acknowledging concerns helps lower the emotion by directly addressing the strong feelings. It assures the customer that you value their feelings and care about their problems. Even if you can’t completely fix the problem, genuine care is powerfully soothing. As the emotional intensity lessens, it will become easier to work with the customer. The problem-solving part of the brain engages as intense emotion wanes.
3. Connect with the Customer
Once you’ve fully reflected and acknowledged the concerns, further reduce the emotion by connecting with their viewpoint. Find one thing or even part of a thing you can agree with, then agree 100% with conviction. Even if all the facts are wrong, you can likely agree that the situation is very upsetting, from the customer’s point of view. The emotion will calm down further, if you approach the customer with agreement. The customer will feel that you are a partner, rather than an opponent.
After you agree with genuine conviction, you can add some additional input. Never use the word “but”. That erases your agreement and will inflame the customer. Instead, use connecting words like: “and,” “also” or “in addition.” As the customer calms down, you can start adding your viewpoint.
4. Attempt to Problem-Solve
Only after you’ve fully acknowledged the concerns, and connected with agreement, attempt a shift to problem-solving. You’ll notice the right moment when the customer shows less intensity. The process of venting emotion and having someone acknowledge concerns, is very calming. You’ll notice it in the body language or tone. It may take some time before the emotion is sufficiently vented. When people are really fired up, they may not be able to calm down immediately. Keep up the empathetic concern and reflective listening.
5. Turn Yourself Into a Broken Record
If the customer is able to shift into collaborative problem-solving, wonderful. You can start collaborating. Keep acknowledging concerns, focusing on areas of agreement and showing how you can partner with them. If the customer starts re-escalating or throwing in distractions, turn yourself into a broken record and repeat your earlier steps.
Don’t get distracted and don’t escalate. Instead, stick to your main focus. As needed, respectfully (this is key) repeat your focus. Stay on point, repeating if necessary. When you can’t be distracted or escalated, the customer will hopefully join you in collaborating. If not, keep repeating. If you’re still stuck in a rut after a number of repeats, you may need to use the final technique.
6. Meta-Communicate to Observe & Pivot
Meta-communication is a psychology term for communication beyond the words. Body language, tone, intentions and conversation patterns are all part of the meta-communication, in addition to words. To break out of an unproductive conversation, it’s helpful to meta-communicate by observing what’s happening. For example, if you’ve gone around the broken record five or six times without progress, you can observe that the conversation is stuck and pivot to break the cycle. You might say: “It seems like we’re going around in circles and not coming to a good resolution. How about we pick this up later, after we’ve given it some more thought.” There are many times when meta-communicating is a powerful tool. It’s particularly helpful when a conversation is stuck in a rut.
Underlying these six techniques is the continued focus on step one: don’t get triggered. Emotional contagion is a real thing. It takes great mental discipline to stay genuinely empathetic when someone keeps coming at you hot. Holding on to empathy will help you and your customer get past the negative emotion and move toward productive collaboration.
If you’d like to chat about specific situations, reach out and schedule a call at: email@example.com
Business/Growth Strategies Customer Service