Changing how we view difficult customers


One of my favourite ways of taking a break, apart from grabbing some fresh air and going for a walk, is to randomly pick a TED talk to watch online. This is a website dedicated to spreading inspiring ideas by selecting top-quality conference talks from scientists and specialists from across all fields that – and here is the winning formula – last no longer than 20 minutes.

This is how I recently stumbled across William Ury, an anthropologist and mediator who talks like a storyteller about his involvement in some of our times’ major global conflicts, from South Africa, to Chechnya, to the Middle East. I thoroughly recommend listening to his wise and witty words:

What struck me most in his talk were his practical examples of people ‘going to the balcony’, i.e. bravely taking a step towards looking at things from a wider perspective, looking at things from another side: not just my side and your side, but the third side, that of the community around us. What are the common values that bind us? What is a common story that we share? What are the common hopes that we all harbour at heart?

He says it himself: it’s simple… but it’s not easy! I see it everyday in my work and life. Conflict arises with colleagues, clients, bosses, neighbours, children, spouses, friends, even strangers. And every time the familiar trap is there, waiting for us – me, me, me, my view, my needs, my hurt, my anger… It’s hard enough wrestling ourselves free from that tiny, constraining perspective to try and look at things from the other person’s point of view (deep breath, counting to 10…). Now I’m supposed to take an even wider lens, lean out of the balcony, and take in all the surroundings as well?!

While wondering how this could be applied to the work situations the participants on our Conflict Management courses might find themselves in, I thought about the reasons behind people’s career choices. A teacher, a social worker, a police officer, a housing officer may have chosen this line of work because at some level they wanted to serve the community, make a difference, do their bit. How sad that some of these ideals should get worn down by the daily grit of ungrateful, uncooperative, unmanageable clients. Yet would ‘going to the balcony’ not provide a good reminder of what used to fire one up, and show us how the person in front of us happens to be part of that community we wanted to serve?

And what about the receptionist or call center staff who might be in that position for no other reason than having to make ends meet? The view from the balcony could offer the perspective that all the people they encounter through their work, however unpleasant or indifferent, are themselves, after all, just trying to support themselves and their families. It is likely that they, too, have worries about the future, about illnesses, about loss. They, too, smile at the sight of a baby and cheer when their favourite sports team wins. In fact, we are all so similar, it’s surprising we lose sight of the fact so easily.

Does that help in facing the daily grind of complaints and grievances? Yes I think it does. For ‘when you walk side by side, facing in the same direction’, you are not face to face with a potential enemy, but rather shoulder to shoulder with a potential friend.