Workplace Violence: Handling Difficult Customers in a Public Service Environment
De-escalating an angry or menacing customer in a busy waiting room of a government agency is one of the most difficult things to do. We need to be conscious of the safety of both co-workers and clients in these public buildings.
Right or wrong, many angry people believe three things:
• Their situation is unfair.
• The situation is out of their control.
• They are the victim in this situation.
In a public service environment, employees are usually overcome by two issues when faced with an angry customer - embarrassment and fear. Most us us are embarrassed when someone is acting inappropriately and our mind races trying to figure out both what to do and what is causing this person to behave this way.
Fear sets in quickly when an employee is not sure how to de-escalate the situation and is concerned that this person may have a weapon. After all, we are inundated with news stories of disgruntled employees or unhappy clients who start shooting.
The most important thing to remember is that the angry person wants to be heard! This person will not calm down until they believe that you are truly interested in listening to their point of view or problem.
These tips will help you verbally and non-verbally de-escalate the situation.
• Stop what you're doing immediately and give them your full attention.
• Use a calm neutral tone of voice. Avoid showing a nervous tone.
• Express your concern and allow them to share their story.
• Make sure your hands are open, empty and visible. This shows them that you are not a threat.
• When possible move them to a controlled, neutral environment (ex: conference room with lots of windows).
• Ask open-ended questions like “What would you like to see happen?” or “How can I best help you?”
• Validate their feelings.
• Use upright and relaxed posture.
• Have an open and non-aggressive stance.
• As things progress, use an authoritative, firm and respectful tone.
Studies have shown that if someone is going to attack or become physical it will occur in the first 2 minutes of the encounter. During this time frame you want to be within 4-6 feet of the angry person. Close enough for them to see that you are interested in helping, but far enough away so they can't reach you if they lunge forward. After these first couple of minutes you can usually move someone to a neutral environment where you can actually address their concerns.
The big mistake that most public service employees make is to rationalize with the angry person in the first couple of minutes. The irate person sees this as YOUR agenda, and they are angry because THEY want to be heard. Make sure to listen and use words and body language that indicate you understand and empathize with their situation. This will de-escalate the situation in a safe manner.