Dealing with aggressive clients: Part one

Are you in a job where you get paid to let people verbally abuse you? People in helping or customer service roles, school business managers, IT Help Desk professionals, and school staff are just some of the people who get to deal with more than their fair share of demanding and aggressive people. Of course, we don't have to go far to find these difficult people - sometimes we just have to look in the mirror. But having said that, there are some people who excel in being difficult.

There are many reasons why people become aggressive. Sometimes they are resorting to such behaviour as an attempt to control other people - to get others to behave in ways they want. Sadly, sometimes this behaviour works. Other times, they are simply frustrated and doing the best they know how. People also have their own quirks and sensitivities. One of my top frustrations are organisations which are very rigid with how they do things. Don't ask me to fill out unnecessary paperwork if you know what's good for you.

People also become more intolerant and aggressive when there is a build up of stress. Their computer crashing may well be the thing that pushes them over the edge. People also use alcohol and other drugs to deal with stress. But these also inhibit their ability to think about their choices and lower the point at which they lose control of their behaviour. Other times, people have serious problems which underlie their aggression - mental health problems, personality disorders, organic brain injuries, etc.

Although the above factors partly explain aggressive behaviour, sometimes our responses are making a bad situation much, much worse. Ultimately, we need to be prepared to adjust ourselves for the individuals with whom we are speaking. If our response is unintentionally pushing buttons for the other person, we need to step back and think of smarter, more creative ways of responding.

Here are five options from which you can choose when someone is next being rude, demanding or verbally aggressive.

  1. Acknowledge their perspective. Sometimes people are saying through their aggression that they are going to continue to get upset until you can genuinely appreciate how they are seeing things and how strongly they are feeling about it. It is important that you find the right words that demonstrate your understanding.

    That's the great thing about colourful language - those words capture the strength of emotions very nicely. ‘You're feeling very, very upset' is not quite the same as saying ‘You feel completely p..... off.' If you are in a role or have values where swearing is not acceptable, then you need to find more words that still demonstrate your understanding of how frustrated or angry they are.
  2. Apologise where you can. This might sound odd when you might feel it is they who should be apologising to you. But here we are trying to de-fuse their strong emotions so they are in a better position to hear what you have to say.

    Of course, it is relatively easy to apologise if there has been a genuine mistake by you or your workplace. But you can also consider apologising for how your actions may be affecting them, for how your behaviour may have come across, or simply apologising for an honest communication breakdown. When done genuinely, a good apology often helps people to put themselves in a more conciliatory frame of mind.

  3. Agree where you can. This is where you say, ‘Yes, I agree we are hopeless and I am a waste of space ...' Seriously, you might be able to agree with some of what they are wanting or saying. You may well be able to say, ‘I agree we need to work out something fair for everyone here' or ‘I agree that we can do our part to help'.

    The above three approaches are what is called the AAA approach. I can tell you, it is very hard to stay upset with someone who is acknowledging your perspective, and genuinely apologising and agreeing where they can.

    Of course, you can mis-use them if you wish - using sarcasm, including personal shots, or sounding like someone who has just read these strategies in an article. These three strategies, when done well, will put the majority of people in a better place where they can hear what you have to say.

  4. Respectfully share your position. Here are a few reminders as to what it takes to keep it respectful. Let them be heard first. Someone has to be the grown-up here - it may as well be you. It is also important to both sound and look respectful when you speak. Imagine teenage girls at their worst as an example of how not to do it.

    You can also use phrases that soften what you have to say such as ‘The way I see it is ...' or ‘My workplace's position on these things is ...' Without such phrases, what you have to say will sound like a statement of fact which they will be more likely to want to dispute.

  5. Offer something for the future. Here some flexibility from you may well encourage flexibility by them. But you will need to be very clear with your manager about those things on which you can be flexible and those things on which you cannot.

    You might also consider offering a trade. For example, ‘How about if I do ... would you be prepared to do ...? We cannot always give people what they want, of course. But where you cannot give people even some of what they want, you can at least give them some of what they need - understanding.

In Part Two, I will speak about back-up plans for those occasions when you have reached the limits of what you can tolerate or for when your safety is at risk.

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