I work at an electric utility company. I work with a group of team members who interact face-to-face with customers under very stressful conditions. When we see customers, we are either turning off their power or turning it back on. Recently, we’ve had issues with these customers turning violent: hitting, attempting to run our employees over with a vehicle, brandishing a gun, and in one case holding an employee hostage at gun point.
I am working to develop a course on dealing with conflict. I teach Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability and am wondering if there is something you recommend I focus on?
I can’t think of a more crucial moment to prepare your people for.
We’ve recently been studying life-and-death situations where the only tool people have is their communication skills: hostage crises, armed confrontations, and other unspeakable situations. One of our key findings is that our natural tendencies are precisely wrong. Our tendencies are to freeze, flee, or fight. Now, in your situation, avoidance is the best option if it’s clear someone’s personal safety could be at risk. I’m certain you already teach that basic concept. If it appears the situation is safe, here are a few things that will help avoid escalation:
1. Start with Heart. How you see your customers will have more of an effect on how things go than any technique you employ. A colleague was sent to manage a mine in New Guinea. It was an open-pit mine that was raided constantly by illegal miners. When the company would blast out a new section, hundreds of people would run into the new excavation in hopes of finding a gold nugget. Many lives were lost when a second blast would erupt just as they descended into the pit—or when loose material would collapse on top of them. Our colleague said the most important step to progress was changing how the mining company saw the locals.
At first they defined it as a legal problem—seeing the illegal miners as thieves or “the enemy.” The breakthrough came when they began to see it not as a legal but a humanitarian problem. Those being killed and injured were often far from home, destitute, homeless, and had no food or money. The motive changed from “how do we stop them?” to “how do we help them?” Anything you can do to help your team sympathize with those you are encountering will set them up to handle confrontations more effectively.
2. Create Safety. Confrontations happen when others see you as the enemy. Your goal from the first contact must be to generate evidence to the contrary. In fact, you should train your team to craft the first sixty seconds of their contact with customers to powerfully create this evidence. Here are the principles for doing so:
Express sympathy. Validate the pain and inconvenience your customers are going through.
Present a confident but non-aggressive posture. Don’t throw back shoulders, clench fists, stare, or in other ways appear aggressive. Your people might unintentionally assume this body language if they feel threatened. They must calm themselves and “Start with Heart” as above—or their bodies will give away their attitudes. Stand tall, but relaxed. Make kind eye contact.
State the facts—matter-of-factly. State what you are there to do, the authority that requires you do it, and why it is being done. Remove any judgmental or “hot” words from this description. For example, replace, “You have failed to make payments . . . ” with, “We have not received payment . . . ”
Offer hope and tools. Demonstrate your concern for customers’ needs by referring to two or three resources they can use to help solve the problem. For example, you could have a card printed with government or non-profit programs that can help with utilities payments or appeals. Even just the gesture of handing a helpful card demonstrates you are giving, not just taking. Giving elicits reciprocity.
Ask permission. When people feel in control they feel safe. While you are not asking people for permission to do your job, you can ask for their cooperation. Ask for them to “opt-in” in some appropriate way to what you are about to do. For example, if your team member is concerned about interference, they may ask, “Will you allow me to proceed without interfering?” If they decline, you can politely inform them of the natural consequences: “I understand. If you will interfere, our team will return at a later time with a security detail. Again, I am sorry for the inconvenience this is causing you.”
I wish you the best as you do your duty in as compassionate and safe a way as possible.