Every situation is unique because the people involved are different. With that said, this blog can offer a basic introduction on strategies that may assist you when you are confronted by anxious or angry clients or customers (consumers.) The event that brought these people into confrontation with you is important to understand and needs to be worked into your solution.
For example, image that you are being confronted by an “upset” consumer who wants to acquire iodine pills to prevent thyroid cancer after a nuclear release in Japan has blown over to your region. The national government has limited the supply of these pills because the government wants the pills to go to the regions where it will be needed most, due to limitations on the supply. The media has whipped up the levels of anxiety and many people are not thinking clearly, impulsively wanting the medication that may not be needed for their specific demographic. You have access to the medication but are not allowed to release it unless your customer meets certain criteria which has been established by some far away governmental agency. What do you do in this situation where you have very little control but are on the front line for taking the “heat” for this media whipped frenzy???
It is good to start by understanding why people react the way that they do in a crisis situation. People often perceive themselves in mortal danger. Their flight-fight response is triggered by the fear created by half truths the media passes off as news. When this panicked response begins, the rational parts of our brains often “shut down” or at least, takes a reduced decision making position subservient to the more primitive part of the brain where the automatic survival mechanisms are centered. This primitive part of the brain, also called the “reptilian brain” because it is related to primitive reptilian responses from millions of years ago is more dominant in certain stressful situations when we require quick reactions to survive. The basic emotions that are expressed when we are stressed are ANGER, FEAR (anxious), Sadness, and, perhaps surprisingly, Joy! These are the 4 basic emotions and these emotions have primitive origins. So, people who are stressed often reduce their abilities to think, problem solve, and communicate, and go into a reactive mood where fear or anger are close to the surface and are demonstrated. Knowing this, you must begin to identify who is angry or fearful and why. Why are they not understanding the full picture? Probably because they do not have all the information and they can not problem solve well due to the stress/anxiety they are processing.
If you have time, the following list offers some of the best ways to handle this situation in order of how you might proceed:
1. Ask questions regarding their base of knowledge and, more importantly, their feelings (fears, anger, anxiety). What is their history of this situation? Often they are trying to protect a loved one and they feel powerless to control a difficult situation. Consider their source of news or mis-information but do not confront them about this in the early stages.
2. Calm them down. Re-state their concerns by repeating back what you have heard and ask them to correct any of YOUR mis-understandings about their specific situation. Know what you are dealing with AND show the respect of listening to their fears/concerns. Offer them ways to comfort themselves in this difficult situation.
3. Get them information about their concern so they can make an informed decision. When they ask questions, give them more information, as patiently as possible. Do not expect a “rational response.” Keep your emotions (frustration) in check, as best you can, to help defuse the panicked response. (I was reminded that in difficult situations people will “go shopping” for the “answer that they want to hear,” so consistent answers or policy descriptions will save you a lot of grief… This requires training for the people who have jobs communicating with the public.)
4. Negotiate a solution that helps to solve their emotional response. Provide time lines, as best you can. Be as honest as you can be, based on the information you have.
5. Honesty and compassion, when sincere, are 2 of your best tools. Brutal honesty, though, is not called for in a stressful situation. Good bedside manner will often get you farther, faster. Reflecting their concerns back to them in a different way will help them to feel heard and may save you time in the long run by helping to establish a positive rapport (or connection.)
6. Always, apologize to them for the situation even if you are not the cause of the problem, and if you are the cause, apologize most sincerely. People would like to feel that their response was correct, even when it is not.
7. If you have not done so already, take GOOD care of yourself. Calm down! Do not get “sucked in” to crazy emotionally driven behavior by your own lack of a solid emotional foundation.
8. If all else fails, say sincerely to yourself, “This to shall pass…” TRY to not get stuck in the “drama” (anxious feelings and reactions) because this will not do you, or anyone else, any good. When the dilemma has subsided, and you feel “out of the line of fire,” do what emergency responders do… make a bad or twisted joke about the difficult situation. This will help to take away its emotional power and can begin the process of your crisis de-briefing.
Good luck. Please take good care of yourself, preventively. Contact the Stress Education Center for coaching or organizational training to assist with managing this process at www.dstress.com.