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Anger – The tip of the emotional iceberg

I visited a High School last week and witnessed the following interaction in the reception area…

Parent: ‘I have come to pick up my daughter.

Receptionist: ‘What’s her name?’

Parent: ‘You should know, you contacted me’ (said with an angry tone of voice).

Receptionist: ‘I didn’t call you!’

Parent: ‘Well, somebody here did.’

Receptionist: ‘Well, it wasn’t me.’

Whilst this interaction was taking place the receptionist wrote out a Visitors Pass and pushed it across the desk so hard the parent failed to catch it and it landed on the floor. I was expecting an onslaught from the parent at this point. Fortunately, her daughter came into the reception area and the parent’s focus was diverted.

When the parent had left I enquired from the receptionist if this type of interaction was common. All too common, she replied, particularly from parents who have been requested to attend school regarding their child’s behaviour. ‘They tend to come in all guns blazing!’

Dealing with the same type of complaint or situation is common to almost anyone who deals with the public. It’s understandable to forget or ignore that, for the complainant, their complaint is unique. Their anger can be compounded by an attitude that ‘we have heard this all before’. Handling every complaint in the same way ignores the fact that there are many different reasons underpinning what appears to be the same angry outburst.

Consider what drives behaviour: emotions, emotions and more emotions. We all tend to experience similar emotions but there is a wide variation in how we express them. Our angry parent expressed herself in an angry manner but what emotions might be driving her anger? Might she feel fear that her daughter may be excluded from school, embarrassment that she has been ‘exposed’ as a ‘bad’ parent, or frustration because she does not know what to do with her daughter’s behaviour? She might not even be aware of the emotions which are driving her anger.

Unfortunately for staff, the only evidence of these strong emotions at play is usually the anger they witness. However, anger is only the tip of the emotional iceberg and it ‘tells’ us that the person is angry but not WHY they are angry.

So what do we do? Firstly, raise your game when you realise you are dealing with an angry customer. Convey through your use of words and body language that you are serious about helping them. Don’t react to their baiting (unlike the receptionist). Take a deep breath before responding, to deal with your own adrenalin rush. Seek to find out what has happened. Acknowledge the emotions involved (‘I appreciate you feel strongly about this’).

We can only work at understanding the emotions involved if we are calm and take some time to listen and understand the feelings and situation driving the customer’s behaviour. When we take this approach and put in the time, we can begin to understand and respond to emotions in a more meaningful way.

But I haven’t got the time, I hear you say. Perhaps, not for everyone, but angry people need time and space to convey their problem and emotions. Putting the effort in early on can save time in the long run by avoiding a verbal attack that could go on and on.



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