Three techniques to deal with COVID related customer/client aggression

A little while ago I did a blog relating to COVID related bullying in the workplace (see the blog here) and the impact differing views on the pandemic is having on workplace relationships.

But what about clients and customers?

I’ve experienced this firsthand recently when a restaurant employee asked a customer to show proof of vaccination. The customer wasn’t happy and (frankly) carried on like a spoilt child. The young worker was just doing her job and she was visibly upset after the confrontation. I wondered about the effect on her mental health.

This is not about the differing views on the response to the pandemic. It’s not about pro or anti vaccination, government legislation, choice or enforcement or the law.

Dealing with angry, difficult or violent customers and clients is a core skill for anyone who works with the public. Being able to de-escalate someone (or at least communicate with them effectively under stress) is something that can be taught. And in these times where people are fed up, tired and frustrated (because of the ongoing pandemic) these skills are more important than ever.

So how do you de-escalate someone?

Why not tell them to “calm down,” or explain to them that “they are the rules?” Because, rarely phrases like these help. In the words of some great unknown philosopher who once wrote

Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down.

Of course, acclaimed academic, former police officer and the founder of the “Verbal Judo” method of de-escalation, George Thompson (now deceased), agrees. There’s quite a few things that you should avoid saying. And there’s many verbal communication skills that can be employed to deal with aggressive or difficult people. Many academics and experienced conflict resolution specialists have techniques, phrases and psychological methods aimed at addressing these types of customers. They are all valid and worth learning.

But it can be confusing. Just YouTube search on de-escalation and you’ll see what I mean.

One thing to note; there are no “magic” phrases, techniques, or methods to ensure someone is de-escalated (or “calmed down!”). There are many variables and situations that impact. However, in my view there are three important concepts to remember and execute (or try to) with dealing with angry and difficult people:

  • Validation. People seek validation for their feelings, right or wrong. Just acknowledging someone’s frustration, anger or disappointment can go a long way to de-escalation. Focus on feelings. Show empathy, not sympathy. It’s not about “sucking up” to them, it’s about communicating professionally.
  • Help find options. There’s always different ways to deal with things. Rarely is there only one solution to a problem.
  • Allow for choice. In the end, there are rules and these have to be enforced by somebody. A decision to act in a certain way or do (or not do) something is better if that decision is made by the person themselves.

There is much to learn in this area about professional communication. It’s easy to just say things like

“Don’t blame me.. it’s the law (or blame the government)…”

“Well those are the rules so… “

“Im just doing my job …”

These are all valid responses, but they don’t help in de-escalation. Someone who’s angry or frustrated doesn’t care who made the rule or who is enforcing it.

The other thing to think about (as an employer) is the health and safety of your employees. Not only does it show good leadership, but it’s the law (check your jurisdiction’s Work, Health and Safety legislation) to take steps to protect the physiological safety of your staff. 

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