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De-escalating Phone Rage

When the phone rings and you say Hello, chances are you’re either taking a call at work OR you recognize the name on your caller ID. 

Suddenly a raging rant floods your ears and mind and, in that split second, your sense of well-being at home or at work can be destroyed.

Angry callers struggle to keep their emotions in check. Often this means they’re unable to talk clearly about issues. The listener becomes an easy, invisible target. 

If you work in a customer service call center for example, this scenario may be all too familiar to you.

You hear a beep in your headset.

Smiling, you begin your standard, friendly greeting ‘til you’re interrupted with a screech: YOU PEOPLE!

You wonder, Why can’t I get through one day (or an HOUR!) without one of these calls? 

When you’re the listener, it’s up to you to manage your stress and emotions in order to de-escalate the situation, to sort out the issues, and to seek a resolution with the caller.  

Successfully navigating phone rage requires that you focus on identifying as much as you can about what the angry caller says that they want, before you can help them to identify what they need. It requires that you speak the language of communication, not simply talk. And you must respond strategically, as opposed to reacting emotionally

De-escalating emotional interactions will increase your confidence to constructively handle conflict. The caller will experience firsthand the sense of calm and peace when experiencing how even mundane, day-to-day issues can be resolved with validation, respect, empathy and appreciation. I like to imagine that a shift from rage to serenity in one moment can lead to many more of these moments.   

Although each caller is different, the issues and challenges you’ll encounter are quite similar. As so often is the case with communication, you can prepare to deal with phone rage by learning how to use a structured, yet flexible, process.

Step 1: Silently detach and ground yourself.

Take a deep breath as you unplug your feelings from the situation to avoid internalizing and personalizing the encounter. Remember, if you didn’t cause this, it’s not about YOU. Tune into the words and issues described by the caller to gather useful information. 

Accept that you’re seeing this individual as if through a keyhole. That’s all you can glimpse. No matter how they’re behaving, know that in this moment, you’re probably seeing their worst and you simply can’t know all that is going on in their life.

Determine that you won’t get snared into their behavior. Instead, keep a laser focus on seeking the best resolution. This frees you to deal with issues objectively, from an emotional distance. I describe this process as being like an out-of-body experience. The distance helps you to spot and zero-in on specific details. 

Step 2: Listen without interrupting.

Interrupt your caller only if absolutely necessary! If you break their flow of words, your caller will start over from the beginning. 

If you are at work and the caller uses profanity or obscene language, follow your employer’s guidelines. Many businesses will allow employees to end such calls and wouldn’t expect you to endure verbal abuse. 

If you choose to continue the call, be prepared to firmly state something similar to this: I can handle your problem, that’s not a problem for me, but I will not tolerate your abusive language.

Listen for shared connections (for example, you both may be parents or providing care for an older family member) or repeated words or phrases. These give you points of connection to weave into your responses.

Remember, they’re using rage to try to intimidate you. That’s phony power. You have flexibility, skills, knowledge and strategies. That’s genuine power. 

Step 3: Acknowledge, then validate their feelings.  

Reduce the intensity with a calm, deliberate and professional tone of voice. 

I can see that you’re upset and I’m here to help you. I would be upset, too. 

I hear you. I want to assure you that I’ll find a solution for you. I’m going to help you.

It’s clear that this is frustrating. I get it. 

Don’t promise more than you can offer. Yet offer as much assurance as you can at this point to build trust.

You may think that it’s best to say, I’m sorry early in the conversation. However, this helps only to a limited degree. 

There are several problems with saying I’m sorry too soon. It minimizes your power and may lead to negative self-talk such as I’m miserable, worthless and poor (three of the definitions of the word sorry), that will reduce your communication confidence.

Sorry puts you in a one-step down position, at a disadvantage in trying to help. An immediate I’m sorry sounds empty and insincere. It’s also unnecessary when what the caller wants first is to know that you’re listening and are eager to help.

Step 4:  Empathize, while stating the situation as you’ve understood it. 

As you restate the situation, use the caller’s key words where you can. And let them know they’re not alone in their struggle.  

I see that this happened. It can be confusing. I’ve had difficulty with a similar issue. 

So these two things started happening last month. I can only imagine how difficult that can be. And you’re not the only one to have to deal with this.

Continue to collect information in a positive, professional, upbeat way. You must remain flexible at this step. Use your creativity and knowledge to anticipate and try to stay one step ahead.

So you would like for me to.....?  Is that right?

This is something that we can take care of with a few basic steps.   

Realize that they’re likely to insist on the one or two things they see as a solution. You can either offer other possibilities or, if you must deliver bad news, end their false expectations.

One key to this is to put the CANs in front of the CAN’Ts. That is, let them know what’s possible, before you mention or describe what can’t be done. 

When I listen to recordings of customer calls, the most point at which the connection often breaks down is when the associate says something like:  

We can’t do that, but we CAN do this. 

Don’t say this. REVERSE IT! 

If the CAN is stated first, the options are more readily accepted. Later an explanation can be shared for why their suggestion isn’t possible. 

We CAN help you with this, this and this. However what you suggested isn’t available at this time.

Step 5: Thank the caller. 

Gratitude is everything.

Thank you for taking the time to call about this.

Thank you so much for making me aware that this happened.

I appreciate your willingness to share all this with me. 

Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

Thank you for your trust.

Step 6: Apologize, if necessary. 

Only if there’s been a mistake and only for the specific mistake. 

I apologize for... (Not I’m sorry, or I’m so sorry! )

Note: The exception to this is for times when you’re expressing sympathy for illness or loss, when I’m sorry can be a good response.

Step 7: Collect any additional information. 

You may not need this step if you’ve already gathered all you need. If you do, you might say:

I do still have a couple of questions. Are you able to take a few more minutes to make sure we’ve got everything we need?

Step 8: Follow-up 

You may need or want to confirm that all is well.

In steps 2 through 6, you disarm the angry person and de-escalate their rage, hurt, frustration and anger by validating them and their concerns. You demonstrate that you see and hear where they’re coming from. And you determine to work together to discover options and decide on a solution.

These steps equip you to speak with clarity. You’ll rapidly build your communication confidence as you connect with callers. De-escalating emotional interactions, such as phone rage, will also improve your confidence for constructively handling conflict in other situations.

As you use this process, you'll begin to see how the magic happens. The moments when we try to connect are never insignificant. Even if it begins in a negative way, what truly matters is that we keep the music of communication playing, to achieve clarity and connection. 

Let’s make communication magic!

Gloria Thomas, The Communication Wizard, Positive Power Lines™


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