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Managing conflict by avoiding ‘absolutes’

Recently, as I was queuing in a branch of a major supermarket chain, I overheard the following conversation between a customer and the checkout assistant.

Customer: (handing over her car park ticket for a refund) “Please may I have a refund on that?”

Assistant: “You need the other part of the ticket”

Customer: “But this one has the price on it”

Assistant: “You still need the other part of the ticket”

Customer: “Why? This one has the price on it”

Assistant: “I cannot refund on that part, I still need the other part of the ticket”

Customer: (walking away) “That’s crap, you’re no help, are you?”

Assistant: (turning to the rest of us) “You cannot please everyone”

The checkout assistant made a correct factual statement (the person did have the wrong part of the ticket – there was no doubt about that). From that point of view the case is closed. However, from a conflict management perspective the interaction was oh so very wrong…

‘Absolute’ or ‘final’ sounding statements can be interpreted in many ways by the customer but most are likely to lead to a negative reaction. ‘Absolute’ statements convey the impression of not being willing to budge, to listen, to compromise or to see the customer’s point of view. They should be avoided, particularly early in the conversation before any rapport has had a chance to develop, when the customer is hostile or when the issue is very contentious. If there is no time for rapport building, ‘absolute’ statements can lead to an immediate standoff:

“I want it”
“You can’t have it”
“I want it”
“You can’t have it”

This position can lead to aggression and sometimes danger.

Okay, smart a∗∗, I hear you say, how do I avoid taking an ‘absolute’ position when time is extremely short, and I still have to say ‘No’ to the customer?

– Ask questions: ‘Where is the other part of the ticket?’ Questions lead to answers and answers provide information which can be used to build rapport. They also convey to the customer that you are interested in them and their problem.

– Provide options for the customer: ‘If you could go and get the other part of the ticket I could…’. Creative options encourage the customer to think rather than react.

– Show empathy: If provided genuinely, empathy goes a long way. ‘I know it’s a real pain having to get the ticket when you’re busy’.

– Watch your timing: As with comedy, timing is everything. If a customer is angry and you say; ‘I know it’s a real pain having to get your ticket when you’re busy BUT that’s the policy’. The customer will only ‘register’ the second section of your sentence. Break the sentence into two parts to ensure the customer actually hears and ‘registers’ your empathy.

– Don’t make it personal: Avoid the ‘YOU’ word if possible. Rather than ‘you need the other part of the ticket’, use phrases such as ‘the blue part of the ticket is needed to…’.

Rapport can be built in a few sentences but rarely in ‘one’ absolute sentence. Be flexible, creative, say ‘No’, if you must, but avoid ‘absolute’ statements that back a customer into a corner.

The Conflict Training Company provides a range of on-site conflict management training courses. As part of the content on most of the course you will find out more about how to avoid ‘absolutes’. Please contact us to find out how we can tailor any course to your exact requirements.



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