Defusing an Angry Caller Situation

By Peter Post
The angry caller—it seems we’ve all had to deal with that person. Unfortunately, the natural inclination is to respond in kind. The result then becomes a call spiraling in escalating anger, and the issue at hand doesn’t get resolved. The question is: What can you do to defuse the situation when faced with an angry caller and bring the focus to resolving the problem?

When teaching business etiquette one of the basic underlying goals we stress is to think before you act. It’s a process that can be employed very quickly. That moment’s hesitation when you consider the options you have in the way you respond to the caller can make the difference between doing the impulsive thing and escalating the situation, or responding in a way that not only resolves the problem, it also helps save or advance the relationship.

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So, as you hear that angry voice coming out of your earpiece, what do you do to move the conversation forward in a positive, helpful way?

* Be patient. Let the person vent for a minute or two. Being the good listener is important. Don’t just react to the tone, listen to the actual complaint as well. Solving the caller’s problem should be your focus.

* Don’t interrupt. Interrupting implies you aren’t listening and that’s a formula for escalating the anger.

* Use a calm voice. Anger simply begets more anger. But an interesting thing happens when you speak calmly to a person who is angry. Often, they will start calming down.

* If necessary, end the call. In the event the person doesn’t calm down or even escalates the anger, a moment comes when you should note his or her name and number and explain that you will call back. Specify the time and then politely say “Good bye.”

* Do your research. Before you call back define the caller’s problem and research or strategize how it can be addressed. Even if you can’t find a solution, at least become familiar with the problem. That way when you do call back, you demonstrate that you have been working on the issue.

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* Be sure to call back. Once you make a commitment, you must honor it. Failure to call back will simply escalate the problem.

* Engage help if necessary. In some instances, no amount of your effort to calm the person or resolve the situation will effect a satisfactory end. In that case, it may be necessary to engage help from a supervisor or manager and have them tackle the problem. He or she may have the authority to act in ways that you don’t.

If you have a business etiquette question, please email it to etiquetteatwork@emilypost.com. You can hear more Emily Post etiquette advice on the Awesome Etiquette podcast featuring Lizzie Post and Dan Post Senning. Listen and subscribe at infiniteguest.org.

Peter Post’s newest book, The Unwritten Rules of Golf, Morrow, is available at emilypost.com.

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.

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