Handling Irate People: 6 Tactical Steps

Angry, pushy, irritated, rude and fuming. There will be times when professionals are the target of a pressure-heated colleague or customer. Remaining balanced ourselves is possible. But, it is a choice that must be made every time. In our customer service training, we encourage these tactics as a way to remain professionally effective:

  1. Be separate mentally. I take a deep inner breath and tell myself, “Bob, go to the balcony.” In other words, I will not be on the stage with them participating in their drama. I must intentionally choose to not take it personally. I might be the target, but I’m not the problem. Our natural first reaction is probably not the one that’s most professional or effective, whether it’s becoming intimated on the one hand; or fighting back, on the other. But, when I choose to let my ego go, my effectiveness goes up. That’s not a choice to become a punching bag or mat for them to wipe their emotional feet on. It’s a choice to rise above the abuse and, perhaps, invite that person beyond it, too—in most cases.
  2. Let them vent. How? Ask several open-ended questions and allow them to vent without interruption. Examples: “___, what do I need to know about this?” “Sir, how can I help you?” Listen unemotionally to their responses.
  3. Apologize when appropriate. But only when appropriate. Do so in a balanced, firm manner. I usually say, “I apologize…” rather than, “I’m sorry…” (the latter of which is much weaker to an irate person’s ear). Remember that you are often apologizing on behalf of your organization, rather than for something you did personally.
  4. Avoid arguing. An angry person will argue to their last breath. Don’t go there.
  5. Take notes. This is a way to stay balanced, protect one’s self, and invite that person to stop exaggerating.
  6. Have a way out, if necessary. Many people will begin to settle down as you do these tactical five steps. However, a few will be so angrily out of control, that they will still be abusive. Now, it’s time to exit the situation in a way that maintains the dignity of everyone involved. Example: “It seems like we need some help to get this resolved, sir. Would you like to wait while I talk to my supervisor, or I could meet with my supervisor and get back to you. Which would you prefer?”

As a professional, my primary role is to remain a balanced, respectful problem-solver. These six tactics have helped our clients’ employees remain balanced and effective in the face of irate customers and coworkers—and in their personal lives, too!

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