Surviving the challenging conversation

Difficult customers, escalating situations, internal conflict – all of these (and more) can lead to the need for a challenging conversation. How do you calm a screaming customer? How do you defuse a potentially volatile situation? How do you address an employee’s or a coworker’s negative behavior?

Let’s start with what not to do. None of these conversations should take place electronically. Emails, texts, tweets, and basically anything done across social media typically only exacerbate the situation. Electronic messages are so easily misread and misinterpreted. Think about text “conversations” you may have had in which the recipient doesn’t understand why you simply responded “ok” to a message – or when the person you’re emailing doesn’t respond quickly enough. It all just gets worse from there.

Challenging conversations have to take place in person or on a phone call. A critical component of de-escalation is the ability for both parties to hear the tone of voice that accompanies the words. Ideally, both parties should be able to watch body language as well.

When you are engaged in a challenging conversation, focus on:

  • Emotions – There should be none, on your part. Stick to facts. They are generally indisputable. Be direct in your questions and in your responses. Take “I feel” out of your part of the conversation.
  • Listening – The key to calming another person is to fully, actively listen so you can understand that person’s frustration. Ask open ended questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Create a true dialogue to calm the shouting match.
  • Empathy – When you listen intently, you pick up queues that help you realize what the true issue may be. The customer is unhappy with a product’s quality or with the delivery time, but that customer may be screaming about it all being ridiculous or some other exaggerated exasperation. Assure the customer you understand the situation and will take steps to make it right. Then do it.
  • Finding common ground – You probably both want the same result from the conversation. You want the customer to be satisfied. You want your employee to be productive and professional. Everyone wants what is good for the business, for the team, and for the customer. Find that common goal and discuss how you will reach it – rationally and calmly.

Challenging conversations should be dealt with head on. Avoiding them or putting them off only makes the other person more frustrated and angrier. Address the issues, without emotion and with intentional listening and empathy. Remain calm in voice and in physical demeanor. Use words the other person needs to hear (not necessarily those they want to hear) and listen to their words to gain a truer understanding of the underlying issues.

Take a deep breath, stay calm, and engage the other person is a true conversation, completing the communication cycle as humans in real dialogue.

 

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