by Johnny Lee

How do I defuse an angry customer?”
“How do I calm down someone who is going off?”
“How can I de-escalate a patient who is causing a scene?”

Teachers, social workers, healthcare workers, customer service representatives, retail clerks, waiters – anyone who works with anybody – can relate to situations and incidents where there is some conflict.  With the dramatic rise in assaults and homicides classified as Type II Workplace Violence by customers and clients, it is essential to prepare employees for these increasingly common threats.

In security planning and violence prevention, so much attention naturally is focused on the potential perpetrator. The focus is on how we can change their attitude and therefore their behavior to prevent an assault. However, the first step really begins with you.

The old adages “It takes two to tango,” and “There are two sides to every story” have some merit in confrontational situations, but in no way imply fault on the part of the worker.  In many cases, the customer starts the conflict and approaches the employee with a conscious or unconscious intent to start a fight.

However, employees need to understand they have great influence over how the issue is resolved simply by focusing on their own response.  The truth is, workers can handle most situations by simply keeping their cool. The following three steps are proven ways to help you keep your cool and handle threatening customers and clients.

1.  Be aware of your physical response

Breathing, heart rate, body temperature and other basic, physiological responses all reflect how you think and act.  If you feel tense, your pulse is up and you are breathing hard. This is a natural, evolutionary response to stress as the body prepares to fight or flee. Unfortunately, in addition to limiting your cognitive abilities, the irate visitor will also pick up on these cues. Being aware of your body’s response can help maintain control, and with practice, it is possible to consciously lower your visceral response to situations. Taking deep, slow breaths is a simple method of maintaining control.

2.  It is not about you

While the subject makes personal and offensive remarks about your capabilities, appearance and lineage, the reality is the hostility rarely has any relevance to you. Often the frustration surrounds your company or agency, but the frontline worker is the only person upon who clients and customers can unleash their grievances. These insults can be very, well, insulting. However, recognizing insults do not have any merit and are really misdirected frustration can help remove the sting customers inflict.

3.  Be aware of your hot buttons

In the course of a customer’s diatribe, the attempt to start a fight might lead the subject to pick a variety of insults or actions to illicit a counter attack. The subject may actually want to escalate the confrontation in order to justify a more violent response. In addition to racial, sexist and demeaning terms they might hurl, they may point a finger at you, get in your face, or engage in other offensive actions that could cause a knee-jerk reaction on your part. In adjudicated youth programs, it is not uncommon for a client to spit in a counselor’s face to make them strike back, causing them to get fired.

The key step is to know your hot buttons (a word, a gesture, a phrase) and then acknowledge you are getting too emotionally engaged to manage the situation in a professional manner or on your own. You can then get out or get help. It is okay to have hot buttons and get angry – we are all human. But knowing your hot buttons is key in preventing out-of-control, violent situations.

It is not how the client, visitor or student behaves, but how you respond to their actions that matters. In many situations, if you keep your dignity and composure, that will influence and tone down the subject’s behavior. As hostility breeds hostility, a respectful and calm demeanor can be spread to those who initiate the conflict. At the end of the encounter, it is not uncommon for the subject to offer an apology, which establishes a connection that can help resolve the initial dispute or grievance and defuse aggressive behavior.

About the Author:

Johnny Lee, President of ePanic Button and Director of Peace at Work, is an expert in workplace security and violence prevention. He was previously the Workplace Violence Specialist for the Office of State Personnel in Raleigh, North Carolina, Training Director for the UNC-Chapel Hill Injury Prevention Research Center’s PREVENT program, and Victim Services Coordinator for the Asheville, North Carolina Police Department.