Strategies for Difficult Conversations – Part V

A few weekends ago two events collided and created this post. The first was a drive across the bridge early Saturday morning to speak at a conference. Listening to the radio, I noted that the host of the program was encouraging listeners to email him with a specific subject line in order to win something. I thought to myself, “It’s amazing how we can  connect with each other so quickly, send an email while still enjoying the warmth of our beds, and yet our communication skills are deteriorating.” I tucked this thought away only to have it surface hours later when I made a call to a local hotel.

What was my call about? And what did I learn about how I handle my most difficult conversations?

It was about my new raincoat. Distracted at the end of my presentation, I had left my raincoat in the conference room. “No worries,” I thought. “I’ll call the hotel and let them know that I’ll come by for it in the next few days.” I made the phone call with the expectation of quick, simple, friendly customer service. This is where hotels, and the hospitality industry, usually excel. In retrospect, I realize my expectations created some of the difficulties during the call.

The young woman who answered spoke very quickly. Normally I would say something like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name”, but I was focused on simple and quick, and skipped this important step. She put me on hold and when she returned the first thing she said was, “They are still in the room.” 

What I heard was: the conference is still happening so no one from the hotel had found my raincoat. Sticking with my plan, I told her I’d be by during the week to see if it had been found. Then things went sideways.

“They’re saying there’s no raincoat here,” she said firmly. “Are you positive you left it here?”

I could feel my shoulders start to move up toward my ears. First, she was contradicting herself and second, she was challenging me. Still believing this could be simple, I answered her question but my throat muscles were tightening.

“Yes, I am,” I said. “I’ve come home without it.” 

“And it wouldn’t be in your vehicle or anything?” she continued.

Now I’m getting emotional. This is not what I expect when I call a hotel – or anywhere really. I’m annoyed that she’s challenging my knowledge, and I’m angry that she doesn’t know how to do her job. This is where having her name could have made a substantial difference … but I’d skipped that important step.

“No,” I answered her. “I’ve checked my car.”

Unbelievably, she kept going: “Could someone have taken it for you?” 

“No,” I said. “I’m not with the group; I did a presentation for them. I will drop by later in the week and check your lost and found.” At this point, I’ve started to move the phone away from my ear. The best thing for me to do once I get emotional on the phone is … end the call. But she kept going.

“Okay,” she says, “but we don’t really have a lost and found.” 

Part of me wanted to: a) ask for her manager; b) scream; c) give her a stern lecture on customer service; or d) hang up rudely. I did none of these things. They were not how I wanted to spend my Saturday afternoon. With clipped words lacking any warmth I said:

“I know it was left in that room and I will drop by later in the week and see if anyone has found it.” 

Her sarcastic response, while laughing: “Well,  you’re welcome to drop by.” And yes, this is when I ended the call. If I hadn’t, I know I would have ruined her day, her manager’s day and, more importantly, the rest of my Saturday. Sometimes when calls are difficult the best thing to do is to end them as quickly as possible.

What about you? What strategies do you use for difficult conversations?


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