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Effective communication in the workplace
Effective communication in the workplace

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3.3 Dealing with an angry customer or colleague

Many people can identify a situation where they have dealt with a difficult or angry customer or colleague. In these scenarios it is important to establish fully the details and reasons for the anger. By identifying the cause, you can emotionally distance yourself from the situation and start to help to diffuse it.

Being respectful at all times will also help to reach a solution. If somebody is so angry that they do not want to listen to what you are saying, it is OK to tell them you are leaving the room and will return when they are calmer. You could also try this approach if you are talking to an angry customer or colleague over the phone. You should advise them that you will be putting the phone down, to give both parties the opportunity to reflect.

Try not to get emotionally involved. Even if the person is angry with you, do not respond with anger. This will make the situation worse and will get in the way of identifying the cause. Some other tips include:

  • Show empathy – try to imagine how the person is feeling and understand why they are upset/angry.
  • Ask open questions to help identify the cause (you explored asking effective questions in Week 2).
  • Look for a resolution, and apologise if you think it will help. This does not mean that you are acknowledging any guilt, but the apology may help to calm them down. ‘I’m really sorry that you are feeling this way’ is a useful neutral apology that you could try.

Activity 3 An angry colleague

Timing: Allow 20 minutes for this activity

Maya has arrived at work to find that Eva is furious. Maya knows Eva well enough to identify her signals, such as banging things on her desk and deliberately ignoring Maya’s good morning greeting.

As Maya is about to sit down at her desk, Eva walks over and very sternly states that she would like to speak with her right away. Maya follows Eva into a small meeting room. Eva’s actions have left Maya feeling very nervous about what the conversation will involve. She immediately thinks that she has done something wrong.

Eva starts the conversation by shouting that Maya has not provided her with some information regarding the project. Maya is upset and angry. She says that she was unaware of such a request, which further fuels Eva’s anger.

How could Maya diffuse the situation from this point on? Note your ideas in the box below.

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The first thing Maya needs to do is control her own rising anger, perhaps by taking some deep breaths and trying to see Eva’s perspective.

Maya could then attempt to diffuse Eva’s anger by trying to establish what is making her angry. For example, she could say:

‘I’m sorry that you’re so angry.’

‘Tell me the information that you need and I’ll do my best to find it straight away.’

‘I’m sorry that I missed your request for this data. Could you resend the email?’

If Maya demonstrates empathy, actively listens and shows a real interest in helping to resolve the issue, it should help to dissipate the anger being experienced by Eva.

However, if Eva crosses a line and behaves in an inappropriate or bullying way, Maya should discuss this with an appropriate professional within the organisation.