Why Am I So Angry? And What Are You Going to Do About It?
This one-hour webinar for WebJunction, co-presented by Maurice Coleman (Technical Trainer, Harford County Public Library) and Paul Signorelli (Writer, Trainer, and Consultant, Paul Signorelli & Associates) focuses on how we can better work within and resolve difficult situations involving people ranging from those who are somewhat angry to those whose behavior requires security or police intervention. Although designed for an audience of colleagues working in libraries, the material is adaptable to anyone involved in customer service.
Let’s get personal. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been that angry customer whose cable connection went down just before the big game started, and everyone at the cable company’s help desk was off for the day, watching what we had hoped to watch. Or we who just found out that the state-of-the-art tech toy we just bought doesn’t work with anything else we currently own, have ever owned, or ever plan to own. Or we just ripped open the package that arrived via UPS and have discovered that the item didn’t come in the color we wanted, won’t fit us unless we lose twenty pounds and stop breathing anytime we put it on, and can’t be returned without paying a 20 percent restocking fee. We probably weren’t feeling particularly reasonable at that moment, were we?
Worse yet: in that moment of disappointment, anger, and—there’s no denying it—blood lust, our conflict resolution skills probably weren’t at their peak. We could probably feel our inner demons egging us on, reminding us that this was just another in an ongoing series of wrongs inflicted on us by faceless strangers who really couldn’t care less about us. And if we really got on a tear, we felt as if this was the latest in a series of insults directed specifically at us and that if we didn’t have immediately adopt that “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” stance, we would never be able to face ourselves again.
Let’s start by attempting to take some of the emotion out of what is clearly an emotional situation. Step one is to acknowledge that maybe what appears to be personal really isn’t. No matter how much that anger appears to be directed at us, we’re well on our way to dealing with someone else’s anger by seeking a solution rather than becoming part of the problem. If we refuse to be drawn into the heated moment, we’re on our way to using some of the conflict resolution techniques we already know—those things that, in our more calm and rational moments, we instinctively know how to do, but forget to try when we’re facing someone who appears to be difficult, has a reputation for being difficult, or just plain is difficult. It starts with remembering that whatever is making the person across from us angry probably isn’t something we did or didn’t do; the anger might just be the end result of a series of awful things that happened to the person that day before they even arrived in our library, and we were just unlucky enough to be there for the final thing that released that pent-up energy.
One thing to keep in mind is that we need to get past whatever blame is being laid at our feet. Again, it’s probably not anything we did—and if it is something we did, we might start with a quick, sincere apology to cut through the problem we’re facing. Nothing defuses anger like an acknowledgement that there is cause for anger. It’s generally pretty hard for someone to maintain anger when we refuse to respond with anger. If it isn’t anything we did: so much the better. We have some great tools at our disposal, and we need to remember to use them to our advantage: we can listen; we can overtly acknowledge what we’re hearing so we re-establish the human contact that is broken in those awful moments of anger which are so familiar to all of us; we can respond in a way that makes us partners in solving the problem we are attempting to address collaboratively; and then we can listen again to see whether we’ve solved the problem or are any closer to solving the problem we’re facing.
Listening—and working with every bit of talent we have for hearing what someone else is saying or trying to say—is a fabulous and often overlooked tool. But let’s be realistic: if we do nothing but listen , we’re eventually going to fill ourselves up with unresolved anger and eventually be as emotionally overwhelmed as the person we’re trying to work with. If, in the act of listening, we attempt to model the behavior we’re trying to inspire—a sense of calm—there’s hope that we might be headed toward a solution.
We don’t necessarily have to reach across our desk and grab the other person’s hands—although there’s certainly nothing wrong with doing that if it feels safe and appropriate—but we do need to offer some sign of acknowledgement once we’ve finished listening to that unhappy person we’re facing. Again, the more we can do to bring things down to a human level, the more successful we’re going to be in diffusing whatever caused the initial conflict we faced so we can move back into what we do best: providing the sort of first-rate customer service which keeps people coming back to our libraries.
The next obvious step is to actually take an action that is appropriate to the situation. We may not necessarily leap over tall book-filled stacks or fly across our computer centers or information commons, but the simple act of doing something substantial to help resolve whatever difficulty we can help resolve certainly is a step in the right direction to transforming a difficult library user into an ally who not only benefits from what we can provide, but will happily return—and, if we’re lucky, bring other great customers along.
So, we’ve covered some of the easy stuff in talking about how we can benefit by putting ourselves into the shoes of that angry person we’re facing; in other words, working with empathy rather than mirroring the anger. We’ve suggested that if we can take the high road and not accept the anger as being personal—even if it feels extremely personal—we stand a good chance of being part of the solution rather than adding to the problem. We have also looked at three wonderful resources we can use: our ability to listen at a meaningful level, our willingness to acknowledge what we’re hearing in a way that helps cut through the angry person’s perception that no one is really listening and no one really cares, and our ability to take some sort of action that helps alleviate even a portion of what inspired the person’s anger in the first place. Since we’re firm believers in the power of applying what we learn as part of the learning process, let’s open this up to discussion via the live chat function of the program. Let’s hear from you about difficult people you’ve faced and how you helped create a positive resolution. We’ll turn our attention to the difficult ones you weren’t able to resolve a little later in this program.
As we dive a little deeper into the challenges of resolving conflicts, it’s worth laying some additional groundwork. Part of what we’re working with here is change management, and one of the most entertaining books to come along on the topic recently is Chip and Dan Heath’s “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.” The gist of the book is the suggestion that we can only do so much by trying to resolve problems and create change through rational, logical approaches. They maintain that change occurs when we appeal to emotions in easy-to-understand ways, and they also are firm believers in seeking small changes that are easy to grasp and implement. We can apply that to what we’re discussing today by suggesting that we don’t have to scale Mt. Fuji to get where we’re trying to get; it might be enough to simply meet that angry customer at a rest stop near the foot of the mountain and spend a few minutes looking for the first easy step we can take together.
A colleague—Sandra Smith from Denver Public—is a big fan of the book “Crucial Conversations.” She has found it to be an extremely useful tool for the training program she manages, and it can offer us guidance as it explores those situations where we become wrapped up in situations where emotions are running strong. The writers—Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler—lead us through a series of chapters and topics including the idea that we need to start from the heart, learn to look, find ways to make those conversations safe, speaking persuasively rather than abrasively, listening rather than blowing up, and turning the conversations into actions that produce results. If this sounds somewhat familiar, we haven’t lost you.
It’s also worth remembering that much of what we say doesn’t even come out of our mouths. Joe Navarro, an ex-FBI agent, has done a wonderful book that concentrates on how we communicate with body language—our stance, our gestures, our facial expressions, and much more. By incorporating photographs into the book, he gives us the sort of visceral learning experience that we can incorporate into our work with those we perceive to be difficult—and, in the process, he gives us additional tools that offer the possibility of positive resolutions we might otherwise not achieve.
Let’s take some images from Flickr one by one. What does the child’s position and facial expression suggest?
What might your reaction be if you saw her approaching you?
If you saw this man sitting at a table in your library, how would his facial expression and posture make you feel? Would your perception of him change if he were focusing that look on you while you were at a service desk?
What does the smoking woman’s stance suggest to you?
If we zoom in a little closer using more images from Flickr, we become even more aware of how small details can provide large cues. Let’s start with this woman’s eyes, her hands, her mouth, and her general stance. Very suggestive—not threatening, but not relaxed. There’s a sense of surprise or apprehensive when we read the combined cues we are seeing.
Then let’s turn to the crossed feet. There’s a sense of being at ease here, just from the way the feet seem to be dangling in a casual pose.
Then we turn to a wide-open eye. Surprise? Fear? If we saw that one approaching us, we might be a bit apprehensive ourselves as we began considering what sort of behavior was going to be expected from us.
And finally, the skeleton. Notice the crossed legs, the position of the arm on the basin, the way the back and head are resting against the wall. Very relaxed. Perhaps a little too relaxed for our own comfort. Amazing what we perceive when we strip things down to their most basic level and make the snap decisions which can sometimes prepare us for those difficult and awkward moments we face in our workplace. OK, that last one is admittedly a bit silly, but in humor we can make a point and, at the same time, find a useful tool to help us resolve difficult situations. Even with the skin and organs, the posture is extremely suggestive, and that’s part of what we want to keep in mind as we continue thinking about what we notice consciously and unconsciously when we’re dealing with people who are difficult for us to respond to.
Time to turn back to you and see how all of you in our community of learners are doing with the ideas we’re covering. In this section of our program, we’ve talked about the importance of seeing conflict resolution as a form of change management or change facilitation. We’ve also talked about the importance of using crucial conversation techniques to create positive results in stressful situations. And we’ve acknowledged that we say as much without words—through our use of body language—as we say with words, so we improve our chances at success in difficult situations if we are conscious of the unspoken messages we may be unintentionally delivering. Our point is to use that language to our advantage—which, of course, means we’re also using it to the advantage of those we are attempting to serve. **Let’s stop again to hear what questions and stories you have on the topic before we turn to the most difficult of those we face: the ones we simply do not have the skills to help. Feel free to comment, in the live chat, about what aspects of body language make you most comfortable when someone approaches you, and what makes you most apprehensive. ***Now let’s talk for a minute about what you can do to calm yourself down when you become aware of how body language is making you tense. Remember that our point here is to both anticipate situations which require our attention and to make ourselves more calm so we can effectively deal with the challenges we face.
We’ve all been there. We see someone who looks disheveled, perhaps even disoriented, and we do the natural thing: we start drawing from our experience to make the sort of snap judgments which help us deal with difficult and potentially threatening situations. Sometimes we’re pleasantly surprised and find we that our apprehensions were misplaced. At other times, we reach the heart of what drew us all together today for this webinar: we find ourselves face to face with someone who simply isn’t going to respond positively, or perhaps rationally. So, what do we do?
First of all, as so many colleagues point out, planning for those difficult situations helps to make them easier to handle. If you’re working near a colleague and you suspect you’re going to need help, you should have a pre-arranged signal or phrase to alert your colleague that you suspect you may need some support. If you’re really concerned and there’s a colleague nearby, you can ask the colleague to ask someone from your Security—if you’re in a library big enough to have a Security staff—to stand by in case you do need help. There’s no need to jump to conclusions and assume the worst by asking for direct intervention too soon, but a little preparation can help keep altercations to a minimum—and that’s one of the basic starting points for any of us in those most difficult of situations.
If things do heat up, we’re back to one of the first things we said today: remember that no matter how personal it may sound and feel, it really isn’t about you at all. You just happen to be unfortunate enough to be the temporary target for that anger, and anything you can do to not mirror the charged emotions through your own response may help you to more quickly find solutions rather than add to what is rapidly becoming a difficult situation. If the person you are facing really has become irrational and it’s clear to you that he or she is acting from delusions, keep a few things in mind: It’s not your job to figure out what’s causing those delusions; you just need to remember that you’re not going to eliminate those delusions. Furthermore, as our colleagues agree, there’s nothing to be gained by arguing with someone’s hallucinations. You can try to de-escalate things while you wait for help to arrive by simply listening rather than responding—and don’t ever hesitate to establish a safe distance between yourself and the person who has become aggressive. Much better to be cautious than have to spend time later voicing the thought, “If only I had…”
Staying calm is critically important; you’ll always have time later to vent or to simply pass out. Once things begin to escalate, it’s difficult to turn back. One of the most jarring things either of us ever saw in our workplace happened several years ago in a large urban library system. An altercation between a library user and a staff member at a service desk was becoming a bit heated, but remained under control until another library user, who was walking past the desk, interjected himself and his own anger into the situation. He started yelling for other library users to come to the help of the initial customer, and things were beginning to turn ugly. There were at least half a dozen angry people there by the time a library administrator and a member of the library’s Security staff arrived—and keep in mind that most of them weren’t even present to see what had caused the initial conflict; they had simply been drawn in and enflamed by someone who, like them, wasn’t part of the initial problem but certainly helped escalate it. The situation quickly cooled down after the Security officer removed the person who had added flames to that particular fire, and the library administrator intervened with an amazing sense of calm and restraint to resolve the conflict between the two initial parties.
It really doesn’t matter how many wonderful people we meet and serve each day; immediately after that adrenaline-filled moment of conflict, that’s all we can remember. We’ve had colleagues remember altercations, years after those conflicts took place, as if they happened yesterday and could easily be expected to happen a dozen times today, too. We do ourselves and our customers no favors by letting those awful moments color the rest of what we face. Let’s not be Pollyanna-ish about this: we have great colleagues who have, over the years, burned out after facing one too many of these awful situations. On the other hand, we have equally great colleagues who somehow show incredible restraint and manage to keep the positive interactions more in the forefront of their thoughts. If we can figure out how they do it—and we’ve offered plenty of tips today on how we can accomplish exactly that—we stand a good chance of continuing to enjoy the work we do and treasure those aspects of librarianship that attracted us to the profession in the first place. Not every library has to be as stately and reserved as the Library of Congress is.
There’s plenty of room for fun and games and noise and much more wild behavior than was common in the libraries of the past. It’s the world we live in, and it’s a world our customers value. And it’s only going to work for most of us if we understand the rules and regulations of the institutions we are serving, apply them fairly to everyone who enters them physically or virtually, and do whatever we can to provide the sort of community cultural and learning center that makes us part of a valued and cherished organization. To do this, we need to bring the empathy we discussed at the beginning of this session, and combine it with the best conflict management and conflict resolution skills we can develop. If we work with our colleagues and with others to create a safe and pleasant place, all of us are the winners.
Here are a few resources for those who want to explore the themes we’ve discussed today. We’ll keep these on the screen while we take any remaining questions you care to pose or thoughts you want to share with the rest of us so that we walk away with the best ideas we can adopt and adapt within our own libraries as soon as we leave each other today.
Why Am I So Angry? And What Are You Going to Do About It?
Dealing with the Difficult Customer or….
Why am I so angry? (and what are you going to do about it?)
Presented by Maurice Coleman Technical Trainer, Harford County Public Library Paul Signorelli Writer/ Trainer/Consultant Paul Signorelli & Associates For WebJunction Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Also try: Joseph Anderson’s “Difficult Patron Behavior: Success Stories from the WebJunction Community,” at http://www.webjunction.org/difficult-patrons/articles/content/437956 Brian Quinn’s “How Psychotherapists Handle Difficult Clients: Lessons for Librarians,” at http://thinktech.lib.ttu.edu/bitstream/handle/2346/484/fulltext.pdf?sequence=1 Resources For Positive Change
<ul><li>Credits </li></ul>(Images taken from flickr.com unless otherwise noted): Title slide: From Pasotraspaso’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/pasotraspaso/4752699101/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Man Yelling at Phone: From RealEstateClienttReferral’ photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/realestateclientreferrals/4049366729/sizes/m/in/photostream/ Mad as Hell: From Mike_Licht,_NotionsCapitol.com’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/notionscapital/4943798948/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Gladiators: From Smiling_da-vinci’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/smiling_da_vinci/12656614/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Wrestling: From Icanctu’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/icantcu/3528037094/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Listening: From A_is_for_Apol’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/apol-photography/3458856098/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Handshake: From Litandmore’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/litandmore/2465362185/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Leaping Into Action: From Danorbit’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/danorbit/1814156778/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Diving In: From Dude_crush’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/haniamir/651043585/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Mt. Fuji: From Jukka_Vuokko’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/jvuokko/2333404745/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Security Guards: From Troy Holden’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/troyholden/4036087411/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Relaxed Child: From Bart’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/bart_/907256885/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Angry Woman: From Cambiodefractal’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/cambiodefractal/3541486151/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Bored Man: From Uomoelettrico’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/uomoelettrico/2585602948/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Girl Smoking: From Ed Yourdon’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/2905906295/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Woman with Crossed Arms: From DanielJames’ photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/revjim/144034933/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Crossed Feet: From Hamed Saber’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/hamed/849226969/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Eye/Surprise: From Caro Wallis’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/carowallis1/219962169/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Skeleton: From Powerhouse Museum Collection’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/powerhouse_museum/2980051095/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Homeless Man in Prague: From Liber’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/liberato/2922275111/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Book Stacks: From Rageforst’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/rageforst/217373926/sizes/z/in/photostream/ I’ll Call My Lawyer: From Jeremy Brooks’ photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeremybrooks/2473047860/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Angry Mob: From Ambrown’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dietpoison/296213187/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Library of Congress: From Maveric2003’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/maveric2003/91198458/sizes/z/in/photostream/ Gaming in the Library: From Bibliotheken Eemland’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/bibliothekeneemland/3400748365/sizes/z/in/photostream/