Diffuse and restore

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Q. How do I effectively communicate with an irate client?

A. When someone blasts you, how do you feel? Hurt, angry, dismissive? These negative feelings short-circuit communication. They sap our ability to process information and consider options. We may react defensively. Understandable certainly, but this isn’t the path to the best outcome.

Some people aren’t reasonable. They just don’t care how they affect others. Fortunately, this is a small minority. The following tips will be effective with many, but not all, people and situations.

People get upset for many reasons, but let’s boil it down. Basically, people want respect. If they don’t get it and if they feel they were lied to or devalued, watch out. Our instinctive reactions often fail us. We might calmly talk them through reasoned steps to resolution. We may stonewall or deflect their anger. Sometimes we get mad ourselves. None of these work well. So what to do?

You should try communicating with an irate person in two steps: diffuse and restore.

Diffuse the person’s anger by actively listening. Set aside your agenda and seek only to accurately understand and reflect back what they tell you. Ask clarifying questions. Above all, at this stage don’t offer solutions, advice, your opinion, blame or any other new information. Simply focus 100% of the conversation on their state of mind and their story. Do not move on until they confirm that you understand what they’re saying.

Restore means to give them back the respect they feel due. You’ve actually begun this in step one—actively listening is a powerful form of respect. Now you can share new information that helps the situation, or short of that, communicates to the now not-so-angry person that you respect them by providing something of real value to them. Directing them to resources, giving helpful advice, walking them through a process, or simply and sincerely apologizing for a mistake are examples.

The key to success is to check your instincts and remember to diffuse and restore. Everybody will be happier.

Tom Dardick is a managing member of The Communication Gym. He can be reached at 888-984-3496 or tdardick@thecommunicationgym.com.