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Top tips for dealing with difficult callers

Reading Time: 3 minutes

People are getting angrier. Or certainly less reasonable. That’s what our clients are telling us as we travel across Britain delivering our dealing with difficult people training. So why? In the local government sector (and others) it’s probably linked to a decade of austerity which has led to services being reduced or withdrawn altogether and service users getting frustrated as a result. It’s also down, I’d suggest, to the general coarsening of public discourse fuelled, if not sparked, by Brexit. People hear our so-called leaders slinging insults at one another across the floor of the House of Commons and elsewhere and they, quite understandably, follow suit. After all that’s how leadership works isn’t it? Leaders lead. The rest of us follow. Leading by bad example as it were.

Social media hasn’t helped either. Facebook, Twitter et al have led us to believe (wrongly) that we can get pretty much instant gratification. Instant likes. Instant thumbs ups. Instant responses to our problems. But so many sectors don’t run at the same dizzying speed. Complain on Twitter about your local authority in just seconds, then sit back and watch your blood pressure rise as the complaint takes days, weeks or even months to resolve.

All of which means there are more difficult people to deal with numerically and there are more difficult people to deal with behaviourally. So pity the poor people at the other end of the line getting sworn at, threatened and generally mistreated.

And I should add that frustration doesn’t just lead to anger. Sometimes it leads to tears. Callers are crying out for help – literally. Both, in their different ways, are hugely challenging for call handlers who, if they’re not managed properly, can suffer what’s called vicarious traumatisation a result. Heck, it can even lead to mental health issues if not properly addressed. Sad, mad and bad callers lead potentially to sad, mad and bad call handlers!

At ACM Training we equip call handlers with a range of tools to deal with difficult people and challenging behaviour. And we help them deal with the impact it can have on them personally and professionally so they can avoid the attendant stress and potential burnout. Here’s a list of call handling tips we drew up with the help of delegates who attended a series of short workshops at a local authority in the North West of England.

  1. Don’t interrupt them in full flow – it’ll only make matters worse.
  2. Remember angry callers are a bit like fireworks – they’ll fizzle out eventually and that’s the time to interject.
  3. Fireworks can flare up again.
  4. Try to establish why they are angry – by listening carefully and asking the right questions
  5. Agree with them – it can defuse an awkward situation, even if you only agree with a narrow part of what they’re saying.
  6. Say sorry – it costs nothing and, phrased carefully, isn’t an admission of guilt or wrongdoing.
  7. Concede some ground or stand together on the common ground to avoid shouting across the gulf of your differences.
  8. Don’t state the obvious – it antagonises angry callers.
  9. Don’t promise the undeliverable in the hope that it’ll satisfy them – they’ll see through your ruse.
  10. Make the most of what you can offer.
  11. Listen. You’ve got two ears and one mouth – use them in about that proportion!
  12. Interject regularly with little noises (uh, oh, I see, yes etc) to let them know you’re still listening.
  13. Remember their anger may be perfectly reasonable in the circumstances.
  14. Try not to take it personally – it’s not you they’re angry with but the situation or even themselves.
  15. Keep your eye on the bigger picture – they may have or need vital information.
  16. Set ground rules as soon as you reasonably can to help reduce/manage expectation and heighten appreciation.
  17. Empathise by trying to picture yourself in their situation.
  18. Sweet reason – try explaining why you need what you need from them or why you can’t help.
  19. Perspective – help them see the bigger picture and that in the scheme of things their circumstances aren’t so bad after all (assuming they aren’t!).
  20. Don’t tell them to calm down – it’ll probably have the opposite effect.
  21. Instead get them to do something practical – in concentrating on the task in hand they’ll be diverted from their anger which often springs from a feeling of impotence and helplessness.
  22. Remain calm yourself (or at the very least try to sound calm). If you respond to anger with anger the call will quickly descend in a downward spiral. Speak deliberately and clearly (not too slow because it can be read as patronising) and you’ll find there’s a chance they’ll mirror your demeanour and calm down themselves.
  23. Abusive or threatening calls should not and are not tolerated in everyday call handling and it is perfectly acceptable to terminate such a call if the abuse continues after an initial warning. However, in a genuine emergency there may need to be more flexibility and tolerance.
  24. Avoid burn out by taking frequent breaks and have a chance to offload any personal stress onto colleagues and/or supervisors. Remember a problem shared really is a problem halved.

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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Difficult People

Reading Time: 4 minutes

There’s a well-thumbed copy Stephen R Covey’s 1989 book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, on my bookshelf. And my bookshelf is clearly not untypical given that the title’s sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. But where’s the best-selling self-help book on the habits of difficult people? There certainly isn’t one in my study. Which is odd given that difficult people create so much heartache in the workplace and have such a negative impact on health, wellbeing and productivity. So here’s my modest contribution to making the world of work a better place.

The list is by no means exhaustive (but then 101 habits of highly difficult people isn’t quite as catchy and, in any case, I’ll need something to write about next week). It’s perhaps best thought of as the habits or traits that difficult people will use to justify their behaviour when somebody (perhaps you) complains about it.

1. Who me? The deniers…

“It wasn’t me,” “I didn’t do it” and “I wasn’t there” are three favourite refrains of deniers – those who refuse to believe they’ve done anything wrong when it’s clear they have. They use their denial to imply you’re unjustified in confronting them about their behaviour in the first place. And in denial they find justification for continuing the very behaviour you’re complaining about.

2. Mountains out of molehills. The minimisers…

Unlike the outright deniers (see above) minimisers will concede you’ve got a point but then, in the next breath, say you’ve got it completely out of perspective. Your hurtful bullying is a minimiser’s harmless bit of fun. A minimiser will suggest you’ve lost your sense of humour and that you take life too seriously. They’ll often try to co-opt others to their cause, turning to a colleague and imploring them “you found it funny didn’t you?”

3. Talk to the hand because the face ain’t listening. The selective hearers…

When my son was young and, like mum’s the world over, I had to tell him some unpalatable truth (normally about his homework) he got into the habit of putting his fingers into his ears and going la la la la la. Well I’m pleased to report he’s grown up. But there are plenty of people in the workplace who, in effect, haven’t grown up and when we as their bosses or colleagues have to tell them some similarly unpalatable truth will block their ears or pretend not to have heard. These are my so-called selective hearers – the co-workers who choose to hear only what they want to hear and are deaf when it comes to what they don’t want to hear.

4. You think you’ve had it bad. The woe is me-ers.

When my mother died my friends were brilliant. They offered help. They put their arms round me. But most of all they listened. A few (and I guess they weren’t proper friends after all) launched straight into their own grief as if talking about how much more awful their situation had been would make me feel better. Workplace woe-is-me-ers exhibit similar behavioural traits. If you’re suffering (even at their hands) they’re suffering so much more. And they’ll do their best to let everybody know that, in an attempt to make you feel guilty. You’re a victim but I’m a bigger victim is their play.

5. It isn’t my fault guv. The blamers…

Blamers are always on the look out for somebody or something else to transfer the responsibility for a situation somewhere other than on their own shoulders. A difficult middle manager will often blame those above them for imposing an unreasonable work schedule. Or those below them for failing to pull their weight. “Sorry,’ they’ll say, “but there’s really nothing I can do about it” even though you know they can. And, deep down, they know that you know they can.

6. Have you looked in the mirror recently? The shamers…

Difficult people are rarely, if ever, willing to take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror. But what I call the shamers category will be quick to suggest you should. “You need to examine you’re own behaviour before you dare talk to me about mine” they’ll say. Shaming and blaming often go hand-in-hand. Blamers and shamers ask questions like: “Have you ever stopped to think the reason you’ve been passed over for promotion isn’t because you’re being discriminated against but because you’re just not very good at your job?”

7. There’s method in my madness. The justifiers…

I’ve brought my son and my mother into this post so I may as well bring my daughter into it too. She played football to a high level but absolutely hated those (thankfully rare) coaches who used trash talk – the hairdryer treatment – to try to fire them up during a game or in training. These justifiers said, in effect, we’re doing it for your own good. They rationalised it by claiming that it worked. “Look you play better when we’re mean to you and the rest of the team” despite the fact that the evidence wouldn’t stand scrutiny. Beware colleagues who try to rationalise unacceptable behaviour and be sceptical about the evidence used to justify it.

Of course, I appreciate recognising these seven habits of highly effective difficult people is only the starting point. The most important step – and often the most challenging – is doing something about it. But help is at hand. What’s the saying? A problem shared is a problem halved. I’d love to hear from you about your experiences of difficult workplace behaviour – as the victim or the perp. Think of me, if you will, as a kind of office crime scene investigator!

Sandy Keating

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Ten tips for dealing with difficult people

Reading Time: 1 minute
  1. Try to stick to facts, not feelings when communicating with a difficult person.
  2. Focus on the main issues that need solving, rather than any minor ones. If you can resolve the big ones the small ones often turn out to be inconsequential or resolve themselves anyway.
  3. Your stomach may be churning and your mind in turmoil but it’s better if you can get your points across in an unemotional way.
  4. Agree to disagree, at least temporarily, because it’s better than arguing. Putting aside your differences allows progress.
  5. Resist the temptation to argue, shout or swear – whatever the provocation. Your point may be right so why undermine it by doing something wrong?
  6. Make the most of anything you agree onso that you can stand shoulder-to-shoulder and not shout across the vast gulf of what you disagree on.
  7. Separate issues from people– things can become very personal, very quickly.
  8. Easier said than done, but don’t take things personally. Developing self-belief as a part of your Emotional Intelligence is a good long term strategy.
  9. Say ‘no’ when you mean ‘no’ rather than ‘yes!’ You may think this will placate a difficult person – believe me it won’t. All the ‘yeses’ will do is contribute to unrealistic expectations.
  10. Finally it’s worth bearing in mind that we can’t change other people’s behaviour. We can only change our behaviour or our view of their behaviour.

Sandy’s been running ACM Training’s none-too-creatively named Dealing With Difficult People workshop for more than 20 years now and demand for it shows no sign of abating – which is a pity because difficult behaviour – whether it’s from colleagues, friends or family – causes untold pain and suffering to the victims, makes office life miserable and does nothing for productivity or health and well-being. The course is run publicly in London, Manchester and Bristol and often has discount places available from just £99 per person.

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Hello from our founder

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Sandy (that’s her in the middle with the blond hair and the big smile) has been with ACM from the start and leads our dealing with difficult people workshops. A passionate trainer, her background is in vocational education and she taught adult learners back in her native Australia. Before that she worked in retail management. Outside work she’s equally passionate about traveling and food (often combining the two!) and loves to walk.

Sandy Keating BAdVT; BEd; MEdTD; DipEd

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Chequers Mate – how to break the deadlock in negotiations

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Beyond Boris’s inelegant turd-polishing outburst exactlywhat went on behind the heavy doors and high windows of Chequers during the Cabinet’s Brexit awayday negotiations will be kept secret under the Thirty Year Rule. And by the time the minutes are released to the National Archive Brexit may have been such an unalloyed success/disaster (delete depending on your own disposition) that only the nerdiest constitutional historians pore over them. But we don’t have to wait until 2048 to find out because ACM Training’s mediation and negotiation techniques trainer, Sandy Keating, has imagined,in her inimitable Australian way, how the discussions might have been handled…

Even before the ministerial limousines started sweeping down the narrow Buckinghamshire lanes, the most eagle-eyed hacks would have noticed an Office Depot van turn into the Chequers’ driveway. In the back a stack of flipchart pads and a dozen or so boxes of fat felt pens. You really can’t negotiate without these tools of the trade. Oh, and Post It notes. Everybody loves Post It notes although, because this was a Conservative get together, the driver was told in no uncertain terms not to bring any of those pinko lefty ones. Or orange ones for that matter because the colour would remind them too much of Nick Clegg. In fact, the only exception to the fifty shades of blue rule was to be several rolls of crimson sticky tape to mark out those uncrossable red lines.

Joking aside, the language you use in negotiation is important. All this talk of red lines is incendiary. It’s perfectly acceptable to make clear you have a position that would be difficult or impossible to give way on. But you must articulate it in an even-tempered way. Cool heads and dispassionate language are, or at least should be, the order of the day. Because, of course, once tempers flare and people start taking things personally positions tend to become entrenched.

When this happens and people are deadlocked I suggest both (or more) parties work separarely in break out groups and list what they want – which is where those flipcharts and pens come in. Then I ask them, in discussion, to put that list in order of importance. The items at the top will necessarily be the things they’re not prepared to give up. But in order to keep those things maybe they are prepared – willing even – to give way on some of the items towards the bottom of the list.

It may seem very old fashioned in this age of tablets and smarphones but actually writing stuff down – making a mark on a piece of paper – is a penny drop moment for so many of the people I’ve trained to negotiate and mediate. When the sides come back together to compare and contrast notes it’s almost always easier to see (literally) the negotiation in terms of WIN-WIN-lose-lose rather than WIN-LOSE. What’s the difference? Well I’ve used upper and lower case letters to emphasise that in order for both sides to win big they both have to lose small – rather than one side winning big at the expense of the other losing big.

The challenge with the Brexit negotiations at a UK-EU level is that one side at least doesn’t seem to know what it wants. Perhaps there weren’t enough flips charts in the back of that van. Possibly they forgot to order enough BluTack. Or, more likely, the caretaker at Chequers wouldn’t let them stick it on the antique wallpaper. That’ll be it. We’re coming unstuck literally and metaphorically.


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Training – the investment that pays dividends

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We’re always banging on about the value of training at ACM. How it’s a great way of increasing productivity. Boosting loyalty. An investment that pays dividends…

But as a training company we would say that wouldn’t we?! So it’s great when other people say exactly the same and validate our thinking. Here’s what a French academic had to say about the value of training on the PM programme on BBC Radio 4 recently. And it’s worth bearing in mind before you listen that productivity in France is way higher than in the UK. No coincidence.