Solving conflict needs thinking space

Angry interactions are characterised by rapid reactions rather than considered thinking. When customers have lost the ability to deal with their angry emotions, they have difficulty hearing and registering anything said by staff. The more information they have to deal with in this state, the more they tend to react. Trying to get them to understand our point of view, justifying ourselves, or defending our position is often met with instant hostility. Adrenaline has been coursing through their system and in a sense they have been hijacked by their emotions.

Either by using their own internal resources or with our assistance, the customer needs to achieve some mental space in which to regain their equilibrium and move from a reactive to a thinking state. If we are caught in the middle of such an interaction it is probable that we also need some space to regain our composure.

A college tutor told me of a recent experience where his anger got in the way of solving a student’s problem. The student began the conversation in an agitated state saying he wished to move to a different college course. The tutor explained repeatedly why this was not possible. The student then got more and more angry and the tutor stuck to his guns, getting pretty angry too. Upon reflection the tutor realised that he had heard the following statements from the student; ‘I don’t like the course’, ‘I can’t do the practical work’, ‘I don’t enjoy it any more’.

Had he not been reacting and had he taken time to listen to what the student was saying, the tutor might have been able to explore some of these statements further. Eventually and after much unpleasantness he did reach an understanding as to why the student wanted to change courses. The student actually needed some simple practical help with his existing course but typically of people in an angry state, his actual needs were buried underneath his emotions.

If we get fixated on or react to the first thing customers say (‘I don’t like the course’), we lessen the mental space we have available to explore the conflict and work out better solutions.

Space can be created in a conversation in many different ways: pauses, silences, asking questions, reflecting back information and emotions, summarising, taking breaks, confirming practical details, etc. As with comedy or playing a musical instrument, timing is everything. A pause must not be too long as to trigger a customer into thinking they are not being listened too. Asking questions is a powerful method of encouraging someone to think but too many questions can be frustrating when all you want is a quick solution.

Angry customers are hell bent on getting you to understand their situation and how they feel. So don’t forget to summarise what they have said. The customer will listen intently to ensure you have got it right. While listening, they are also taking a break from their ranting.

Any space created in a conversation benefits both parties. More creative solutions and options flow from the space created in a conversation. Create time to think because thinking beats reacting in almost any situation.