The combination of the pandemic and our current economic climate has definitely increased stress levels. For many businesses, this means an increase in emotional conversations with customers. My webinars on the skills for managing and de-escalating big emotions on the phone, by email and in person, are in greater demand now than ever before.
Throughout my 16 years of supporting clients with these skills, I’ve always run into pushback on one essential element. Until recently, I’ve listened carefully to the individuals who’ve disagreed with me. I’ve nodded and said something like, “This is my best advice. If what you are doing is working, then that’s great.”
But in December 2021 two things happened in succession that have me taking a firm stand. There is one phrase that must be part of any de-escalation process. Without it, especially today, you run the risk of increasing conversations that are upsetting for everyone and even escalate to abuse.
What’s this one phrase? Why do some people refuse to use it? And why am I now saying, “Get over yourself!”?
In mid-December 2021 I delivered a webinar to a group of professionals that often find themselves the recipients of rude, patronizing and angry conversations – by email, phone and in person. Any job that includes this type of communication becomes frustrating and exhausting, limiting everyone’s enjoyment of their work as well as their productivity. I’m passionate about providing as many tools and skills as possible to make these situations easier for everyone.
One of the important aspects of dealing with big emotions is knowing that when someone is emotional … they can’t hear. This applies to all of us. Our emotions diminish our ability to listen and understand. This is why, when we interrupt someone expressing themselves in an emotional way, they get more emotional. They can’t take in what we are saying, no matter how valuable. All they experience is the interruption – a sign that we aren’t listening, don’t care and think them foolish.
In order to communicate, to begin the de-escalation process, we have to decrease their emotional temperature.
Think of reducing the heat on a stove so a pot goes from a fast boil to a more reasonable simmer.
We accomplish this by saying the most powerful words in the English language … “I’m sorry.” And this, of course, is where I get the pushback. In fact, one of the participants in my December webinar stated very clearly, “I will never say I’m sorry.”
Why do people have such a strong reaction to this vital step of de-escalating big emotions? Because they interpret the words “I’m sorry” as accepting blame and taking responsibility for something they haven’t done.
While the phrase can be used as part of taking responsibility for something, that’s not what it means.
Death taught me this lesson. Soon after that December webinar, on Christmas day, a friend passed away. It was announced on social media by her partner. Every response, every comment, began with the words, “I’m sorry.” Were these people accepting blame or taking responsibility for my friend’s death? No, of course not. What they were saying is I hear you, I’m listening, I’m with you, I care.
Not every emotional conversation can be easily de-escalated. But in the majority of circumstances, the words “I’m sorry” begin the process of moving to a reasonable conversation. They should be followed by an open-ended question such as “What do you think of my sharing with you how I can help?” or “What are you hoping will happen next?” The open-ended question requires the individual to think, and this moves them towards logic, away from emotion. When any of us moves towards logic, our ability to listen improves.
When you find yourself on the other end of an emotionally charged conversation, set your ego aside. Let the other person know you care, that you are listening, that you want to help – by saying, “I’m sorry.” You’ll be pleased with the results.