Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
What do you recommend as a first step when an irate employee comes into a supervisor/manager’s office and begins to shout out a complaint and demand immediate action?
Dear Under Attack:
When I was asked if I’d be willing to answer a new question that had come in, I remember thinking, “I hope it’s something like the following:”
– I have a colleague who splits infinitives. How can I deal with this?
– Last week I asked my son to study ten hours and he only studied nine. How can I hold him accountable?
– My computer is eight months old and I need a new one. How can I get my boss to support my work needs?
But no luck. I get to answer this tough one. A serious one indeed.
When we do our training sessions, we show videos where a colleague, boss, or family member flies off the handle. Some participants say, “That’s way over the top. That would never happen here.” And we can understand that. Other participants, however, raise their hands and with energy say, “Oh, I’ve seen much worse.” I bring this up to suggest that many people do face situations like the one represented in the question.
So here is a response as first steps:
1. First, make sure you are safe. This means physically safe. There are too many incidents of workplace attacks in the news. How do you ensure your safety? Immediately make sure that there are other people visible. Make sure your door is open. Step into the hall to be close or visible to other people. You can often sense in the situation how much your physical safety is risk, but not always. Don’t take any chances.
2. Instead of jumping in to resolve the concern and running the risk of escalating the situation, address the other person’s emotions directly: “I can see this is a serious matter to you. When you talk that loudly, it becomes uncomfortable for both of us. I’d appreciate it if you could lower your voice. I want to listen to you and understand what you want, but I want it to be safer for both of us. Can we take a two-minute break?” This gives you both a chance to calm down and prepare for a more productive conversation. It also gives you the opportunity to make sure the situation is safe–to open the door, get someone’s attention, etc.
3. Find out what is making the situation so “unsafe” for the other person that he or she is shouting. If you explore others’ reasons, you might be able to help understand the data that’s driving their story and fueling their emotions. Once you understand their stories and their data, you’ll know where to begin in resolving their concerns.
4. If these kinds of behaviors are a pattern for the other person, you can not only mention that (“This is the third time you’ve come in upset and shouting. Please calm down”), you can also get an agreement about what is acceptable behavior the next time he or she has an issue to bring up. Clarifying this expectation and coaching the person will help him or her understand what behavior is unacceptable and what he or she should do instead.
I think it’s fair to talk about and then move toward progressive discipline if this kind of behavior is not eliminated.
In summary, make sure you are safe, make sure the other person knows you want it to be safe for both of you, and then deal with the issues that the person is bringing to your attention. Finally, and importantly, deal with his or her behavior and what needs to improve.