• L. Darryl Armstrong

Eight steps for diffusing anger

“I am mad as hell and I am not going to take this anymore!” said Howard Beale, the long-time news anchor for the USB evening news in the 1976 movie, “Network.”


In today’s environment, many of our customers and clients, when their anger is not handled properly, can and do become “mad as hell!”

In the world we live in today, it is more important than ever to understand how to diffuse anger when dealing with a customer or client. The same techniques can be used when dealing with the anger of a family member or even a stranger you meet in the parking lot.

This article is not meant to scare you. It is intended, however, to raise your awareness about what it means to live in a world where anger can and often is expressed in terms of violence. These techniques will help you be prepared to deal with that anger.

First, we should all recognize that complaints are OK because, at the very least, the customer is letting us know what the problem is.

I would much rather know what the problem is because then I can work toward a solution. If I don’t know what the problem is, there is no way to make things right. We must remember, though, not to become defensive when the customer is telling us their issues with the product or service.

Statistics demonstrate that if a complaint is well handled, the customer will be more loyal than he or she was before they complained. And we may have learned something constructive for our business.

Second, try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

It becomes critically important to understand the other person’s point of view. We must accept the fact that he or she is entitled to their point of view, although it may be totally different from our own.

Third, let the person tell their story.

The best medicine for upset people is to let them vent. Use your listening skills and give the person a chance to express their feelings. Draw him or her out with questions, or noncommittal and empathetic remarks like “I see” or “I can see why you are upset” or “I can understand why you would feel this way.” This will help calm the customer while revealing some points of agreement or settlement that are important in leading to a solution.

Fourth, learn to listen.

It is not enough to sit passively while a person talks. You have to listen with the mind (as well as the ears), looking for the paths that lead to understanding and problem solving. Be careful not to give a reply before the person is ready. Until someone with a problem has completely vented his or her feelings, they will not be ready to listen to a solution!

Fifth, be empathetic not sympathetic.

Be sure to use empathetic language that illustrates you are trying to understand the caller’s point of view. Sympathy and empathy are both acts of feeling, but with sympathy you feel sorry for the person without truly understanding the what and why of their feelings. Empathy is a much more active process, and it takes work and imagination to get there. See the above.

Sixth, speak the person’s language.

It won’t help to use terms common to your profession or company when dealing with a person who is upset.

Find words he or she will understand when talking about your service. The goal is to communicate. Listen carefully to the person and take notes. If they say they “think” the product or service is defective, reflect back to them that you “understand their thinking”. However, if a person says “they don’t feel good about the service”, this person is emotive so use “feeling” language when responding to them.

Seventh, whatever you say, say it with respect.

Courtesy, respect and consideration are all shown by using a friendly tone of voice and a set of behaviors which show the person that you consider him or her a person worthy of respect. A controlled volume to your voice and a choice of words that will be meaningful to your listener can make all the difference. See above.

Finally, diligently work to make the person “feel” important.

You may hear the same complaint or problem frequently. Just imagine how many times counter agents at airports must hear the same compliant over and over. However, this person may have only told it once. So we must listen patiently. Learning the person’s name and using it in the conversation is helpful also.

We are often reminded as children of the “Golden Rule.” It certainly applies in business, yet perhaps more in the sense that author and longshoreman Eric Hoffer (1902-1983) was quoted as saying:

“The remarkable thing is that we really love our neighbor as ourselves: we do unto others as we do unto ourselves. We hate others when we hate ourselves. We are tolerant toward others when we tolerate ourselves. We forgive others when we forgive ourselves. We are prone to sacrifice others when we are ready to sacrifice ourselves.”

Keep in mind that how we react to what is happening can define whether the outcome is positive or negative. What you have learned about handling anger can influence your success in business and your safety in the world. When our behaviors demonstrate these interpersonal skills, we will succeed.

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