Handling Tough Situations Like a Pro

Okay, here comes that angry or disgruntled person in your life:  your spouse, your customer, someone who is ready to give it to you.   While you may want to spin on your heel and run, or knock them out before they get to you, I suggest you consider a few key principals that will diffuse the situation – without bodily harm or long term injury – most of the time.   To me, the crux is empathy: accepting and understanding the other person’s position without judging you or them!  How to get to empathy?  Keep reading!

In his recent article, The Martial Art of Difficult Conversations Peter Bregman, author and consultant, articulates beautifully a little story that illustrates some simple actions to master the difficult situation.  His story spoke to me because I realized that I’ve used his approach countless times and it works very well for me, not only as a corporate staffer, but also as a wife and mom!  Read his wonderful article by clicking on the link above, or if you are short on time, here’s my overview of his key points:

  • Ask questions.  Ask open ended, exploratory questions. Who, what, when, where, how, why, etc.  Use questions that clarify what the angry person (“AP”) is saying and feeling, i.e. try to understand and the AP’s perspective.  Hold yourself back from asking loaded questions or using language that may sound antagonistic.
  • Actually listen.   This is my favorite item, and for many people, the hardest part:  really pay attention.  Don’t talk.  Hear what is being said and let go of all defensiveness.  Look for what else is going on.  As Bregman says:  Try to hear what isn’t said, but what is implied: the desires, fears, and assumptions that are behind the words.
  • Repeat and summarize. Recap what you hear, using as many of the same words as the AP did.  Also summarize what you hear and check with the AP to see if you understood correctly. If you are told that you didn’t get it right, ask what you missed. Once you are told, repeat that part again and ask you got it right this time.

The goal is to get the AP to relax and release some anger.  Then you should be able to talk to each other more constructively about what happened and what to do next, if anything.  To me, Bregman’s process is like an empathy primer:  it gives you what you need to do to understand and accept someone else’s perspective non-judgmentally.

My take on the best next step is to take a corrective action.  That might be to accept responsibility for your wrongdoing, if in fact that is the case.  So, let’s say you really did ruin your boyfriends favorite shirt, you might start with an apology.    On the other hand, if it was the cleaners who did it, you could empathize: “I can see why you are so angry – let’s talk about what happened and how we can stop this from ever happening again.”

On the other hand, there may not be a clear wrong doing.  Perhaps as a marketer, you approved an ad that some of your constituents didn’t like, but it is a good, defensible ad.   Then you might again, offer authentic empathy, “I can see why that ad made you feel uncomfortable, I hadn’t seen it that way before speaking with you.  Here are the reasons we did it this way – and while I can’t retract the ad at this point, I will certainly consider your perspective in the future.  Is there anything we can do right now to ameliorate the situation for you?”  The conversation might go something like that.

Empathy, for me:  listening, asking questions and really hearing the other person’s perspective has been a powerful tool for working through a tough situation and actually feeling good about it! How about you?

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Date: Saturday, 31. October 2009 14:36
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