I recently had the opportunity to contribute to Sue Shellenbarger’s Q&A column in the Wall Street Journal (click here for her original column). It was a great question, and Shellenbarger crafted a thoughtful, concise response using my input combined that that of my good friend and colleague, Dr. Kate Hays.
I confess that my writing style is more quirky than what was reflected in the column, and decided to offer my unabridged response to the question of how to handle confrontational situations in the workplace.
Q: I enjoyed your article on stress. I do face-to-face customer service in my job and frequently must deal with irate or abrasive customers who make stressful demands. My body responds just as you described; my heart speeds up, my hands get extremely cold and my mind goes blank — then I get even more nervous. I have never liked confrontations but I must try to stay calm and think on my feet. Can you offer any advice? –J.W., Boston, Mass.
There are 3 key ingredients to performing successfully in pressure situations: 1) a clear “target” of how you would like to handle the situation; 2) specific strategies for staying “on target;” and 3) practicing the process of staying on target when confronted with distractions and rising emotions.
Have a clear target.
When dealing with challenging situations such as you describe, it is easy to slip into the habit of focusing on what you do not want to happen: you don’t want to become upset, you don’t want your palms to start sweating, you don’t want your mind to go blank. Unfortunately, the brain does not incorporate the concept of “not” and instead engages in mental rehearsal of what you’re trying to avoid. It is far more effective to focus upon what you would like to actually do in those situations to provide a mental target for your attention. For example, in the situation you described your target may be staying calm, relaxed and poised.
How do you get a clear target? Look for exceptions to the problem. When have you been most successful at handling confrontation? You learn more from the one time that you have been successful than from 99 times that you have failed. If you cannot think of any times that you have been effective, find someone whom you believe is handling confrontation well and use that individual as a model for how you would like to behave under pressure.
Have strategies for staying “on target.”
Just as in playing darts, you may not hit the bull’s-eye; but your goal is always to come as close as possible. If “off target,” you make adjustments and keep refining the process. In pressure situations, it is easier to stay on target if you remember to “P”: Pause; get your Pulse down; and put things in Perspective. Put these together and they become your “P routine.”
Pause. In dealing with an irate customer, it is easy to get caught up in a reactive verbal interchange. Slow the process down by taking both a physical and mental break in the action. This can be accomplished with a simple gesture such as leaning back in your chair, taking off your glasses or picking up a notepad, and then continuing with your “P routine.”
Pulse down. Use your breathing to lower your pulse and counteract the flood of adrenaline. Adrenaline involuntarily triggers short and shallow breathing (along with all of the other physical symptoms that you noted). Disrupt the involuntary response with slow “belly breathing.” Start a long slow breath by relaxing the diaphragm and letting the air fill your lungs from the bottom or belly up. Some people find it helpful to imagine the lungs filling in the same fashion as a water balloon. Inhale for a slow 5 count and then exhale slowly through your mouth for a slow 7 count. Repeat as needed.
Perspective. Plan now for the things that you would like to remember in pressure situations that help you maintain perspective and a sense of balance. This may include things such as “Stay calm;” “My job is to understand the person’s concern, convey empathy, and explain the company’s policy even if the customer does not like the policy;” or “This person is upset with the policy, it is not about me personally.” It is important for your reminders to be in words and language that are comfortable and familiar to you, and that they are believable rather than a lofty ideal. If you want to remember something under pressure, don’t just think it; ink it. Writing it down improves your ability to recall it later. It can be particularly helpful to write these reminders on a note card where you can view it during your “P routine.”
Staying calm and focused under pressure is a skill that can be developed and improved with practice. The key is to start with low-pressure situations and gradually increase the intensity. The easiest way to begin is with mental rehearsal, which allows you to control all of the elements and the intensity. A good first step is imagining the ideal emotional state that you have defined as your target. Focus initially on experiencing the sense of calm, relaxed focus in a setting that is safe and free of any threats or distractions. Then use your imagination to gradually increase the complexity and challenge of the situation. Imagine staying “on target” while talking with a trusted friend. Progress to mentally rehearsing a minor disagreement with a colleague. Mentally rehearse starting to become upset and then using your P routine to calm down. Once you have been successful in your mental rehearsal, look for opportunities to practice using your skills in real-life situations.
As with all performance psychology interventions, these principles and suggestions need to be tailored to your unique personality, strengths and situation. You may find it helpful to consult a psychologist, therapist or coach if you encounter any difficulties with the process, or simply would feel more comfortable with professional assistance. All skills must be practiced to be effective. And finally, remember that when you initially begin practicing new behaviors it is common to still be a bit apprehensive and uncertain. Confidence comes after mastering skills, not before.