"Do you have any idea how much you guys screwed up this time?"
I'm on the phone at work and, before I can even get a word in edgewise, someone is shouting at me. The man is so angry that it takes me a few minutes to even figure out what he's so upset about. Eventually it comes out that he's still getting billed for an account he thought he'd canceled.
As I try to find the solution to his problem, I think back to a tantrum my daughter had that morning.
"Mama!" she screamed, red-faced. "You always do it wrong! I can't stand it!" I had no idea what she was talking about, but I knew she was extremely upset.
Like the angry customer, my daughter was frustrated by a problem so vexing that it took away her ability to communicate effectively. Fortunately, I knew just what to do.
Having spent years dealing with angry customers and clients, I've seen how some of the same tactics that put out fires in the workplace can help me at home with my daughter. Here are some of the strategies that have helped me work through disputes:
Whether it's a preschooler screaming that she can't get her shoes on, or a client insisting that his login has suddenly stopped working, your first instinct might be to push back. ("Of course you can put your shoes on!" or "I'm sure your login works just fine.") But these responses don't help solve whatever problem your child, or client, is having. So dig deeper. This simple, neutral question, "What happens when you try?" can help you find out what's really going on without starting a fight.
Have you ever tried to convince a customer who's demanding free shipping that she should really be happy to pay $7.95 for it? Or win an argument with a sobbing three-year-old about why she can't have ice cream for dinner? It feels like a no-win situation.
It can be tempting to just put your foot down and say, "Sorry, that's the way it is." But this is unlikely to win you any support – with the three-year-old or the customer.
What can help is to take a little trip down fantasy lane and really explore the scenario they're describing: "It would be great if we could have ice cream for dinner every night, wouldn't it? Ice cream is so yummy! You know what, though, I bet we would both get tummy aches if we did."
Just talking through the scenario in a neutral way can defuse a tense situation, while also helping bring your adversary around to your point of view.
The word "but" has a way of putting people back on their heels. It's a "no" in disguise. It says "You're wrong" or "You're not going to get what you want." It sets up a disagreement.
AND you don't ever have to use the word "but." Try using "and" instead – or just leave out the conjunction altogether. It's almost like magic how much this simple change can steer a dialogue from conflict to cooperation.
So instead of telling your son, "I know you want to keep watching TV, but it's time for bed," use "and" in that sentence instead, or simply say, "I know you want to keep watching TV. It's time for bed."
Suddenly you're not disagreeing with him, you're acknowledging him while also giving him additional information.
I learned early in my professional life that stomping into my boss's office and saying "I can't possibly get all this done!" was not a good career move. Instead, I learned to ask for help.
When you ask someone for their help, you're inviting them to join your team. So I learned to approach my boss by saying, "Hey, I'm not sure how you want me to handle this, I've got two projects that are deadlining at the same time and it looks like it's going to be a time crunch."
The same strategy can work with your kids. I like to remind my daughter that we're all on the same team during these tense moments because a) it's true and b) sometimes both of us need a little reminder that we're not adversaries.
Instead of complaining that you never seem to be able to get out the door on time, ask your children to help you brainstorm solutions to the problem and see what they come up with. You may be surprised to find that some of their suggestions reveal roadblocks that you hadn't been aware of.
No one likes dealing with an angry customer – or an angry toddler. There may be screaming, crying, harsh language exchanged, and it can leave you feeling like a human punching bag. As unpleasant as it is, and as tempting as it may be to fight fire with fire, it's worth it to hang in there and really listen. Most often, the toddler (or the customer) will run out of steam.
When they do, it's your turn to jump in and mirror what you've just heard: "I can hear how frustrating that was for you. I'm sorry that happened. Let's see what we can do now to work this out."
It may sound like customer-service jargon, but it's more effective than defensiveness, excuses, or an authoritarian response because it allows the other person to actually be heard. Once someone has been heard, they usually find that they don't have quite so much to shout about anymore.
Dealing with conflict – whether at home or in the workplace – isn't fun, but it doesn't have to be terrible, either. With the right strategies, you can ward off tantrums and get to solutions a lot quicker – and with a lot less crying.
It takes a village!
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