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Business Tips: Handling conflict and angry calls


by , MBA

Not everyone who calls you is doing so while thinking how wonderful you are. Some are calling to argue, complain, or just vent. How do you handle difficult conversations? You have some choices. You can argue with an upset person—and not get anywhere. You can refuse to talk with that person—not the best strategy. You can take the abuse, get all upset, and—no, forget that. What can you do? Or, suppose you need to confront someone. How do you get what you want? Let’s see….

First, start with goodwill and respect. You are not the enemy—show this (unless you want to be the enemy. Remember, in a hostile situation, expectations are low.

If the IRS returns a phone call, what do you do? Jump all over that person? No. This is another human being at the other end of the line. Thank the person for calling. Address the person by name, and let him or her know you are going to give undivided attention. "Thanks for returning my call, Mr. Jones. May I call you Paul? Let me (shut off the TV, close this file, close my door, turn the radio off—whatever), so we can talk. Just don’t fake this. You have to realize when someone from IRS calls you, that person may actually be trying to help you—it’s less effort for them simply to seize your assets than to take a verbal pummeling from you.

If it is an angry customer, fine—you get paid to handle such calls whether you work in Customer Service or not. Think of each such call as an opportunity to turn an enemy into a friend, and be glad for it. Just don’t try to fake this attitude. People can spot a phony (no pun intended), and phoniness will hurt you.

If you have to write a note like "My callers are all potential friends and allies" by your phone, do so. If this is a face-to-face situation, you may have to interrupt the person and say, "I want you to know that I want to make this right for you. I’m on your side. Now, what is the problem in a nutshell?" You can catch more bees with honey than with vinegar—let the sweet side of you show right away. Smiling isn’t always appropriate, but it usually is.

If you are the one doing the calling, say, "I know you are busy and I’m probably interrupting you. Is now OK to talk?" If you want this person’s attention, don’t call just before lunch or just before quitting time—that’s disrespectful and mean. If someone calls you at such a time, you may have to say, "Let me get the really short version for now. Can I call you back at 10 AM tomorrow?" Then make sure you make that call at 10AM. Not 10:01 AM.

Second, get to the point. "Fred, you and I have a problem. It’s not a personal problem, but I am starting to get irritated with you. I have to review your work before including it in the project each month, and you always turn it in a day late. This means once a month, I have to work until midnight because of what you do. I am sure this is not what you intended. How do you think you can help me with this?" If you start off with a bunch of side issues, Fred will not be listening by the time you get to your point. Notice how brief this was?

Don’t digress. A laundry list of arguments or complaints will result in a defensive reaction. Going on to tell Fred about every perceived slight since the day you met him will undermine your purpose in having the discussion. My ex-wife used to do this, and I referred to it as the "barrage attack." It’s a manipulative way of communicating frustration, but it makes zero progress toward resolving any problems.

Don’t blame, accuse, or guess motives. Assume the other person does not lie awake at night dreaming up ways to frustrate you. Assume, instead, the other person is a victim of some circumstance he or you can change. Do not tell the other person something accusatory like, "You never did like me" or "If you wanted to be a good employee, you’d do this." Stick to the problem you can solve. Make sure you don’t exaggerate with terms like "constantly, never, forever, and always."

Listen. Fred might have a very good reason for being late. "I have to wait for you to give me the resources to do my work, and you’re always late. I can help you if you help me." Or maybe he’ll say, "It’s this computer program" or some other resource. You can then volunteer to help correct the perceived underlying problem (or find someone who can). At the very least, this will allow Fred to save face and motivate him to keep up his end of things.

Ask for action. "OK, Fred, please tell me what you would like me to do" is more effective than "Why don’t you tell me what you want me to do?" The second question can get an answer like, "Because I don’t want to tell you." The first question assumes the person can and will come up with a solution.

Go away with something. What is the point in having the discussion at all, if you don’t make any progress? Get agreement. You can agree to think about it and meet again. "I can see we can’t agree on what the problem really is. However, I am sure we can agree to discuss this after we’ve had some time to think about it. You’re smart and will probably figure it out, but I am willing to give it more effort if you are. Would next Wednesday at 10 work for you? How about if I send you an e-mail with my thoughts on Monday?"

Don’t take abuse. You can ignore personal abuse and keep coming back calmly to your goal. "Look, Fred, I know you are thinking I am being entirely insensitive to your situation, and you know what? We’re both unhappy. Surely, two people as sharp as we are can come up with a solution. How about if we sleep on it and talk again tomorrow?


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