Negotiation is a process of arriving at mutual satisfaction through discussion and bargaining with another person or group. However, this can be very difficult if you are dealing with a client who is angry and aggressive.
Feelings of anger can lead to distorted perceptions, and so clients may not hear all of what is being said if they feel frustrated and upset. The most effective way to deal with a client’s anger is to respond thoughtfully, while remaining focused on your objectives. Negotiation is not about winning; rather it is about solving the problem in a way that protects the relationship between you, the organisation and the client.
Keep calm when speaking with the client, take a deep breath and use self-soothing thoughts to keep your own anger and anxiety under control. When you relax your tone of voice, the client’s anger may start to subside as well. Calmly assert yourself and listen to the needs of the client. If you don’t listen, then you are less likely to be able to assist them. Don’t become sidetracked into defending yourself, and don’t take the anger personally, even if it seems personal.
The following are important:
- Attend fully to the client
- Use empathy
- Listen carefully to what they are saying
- Stay with them until they are calmer
- Don’t interrupt
- Seek information
- Check your understanding by paraphrasing.
When responding to an angry client you should firstly focus on any areas of agreement, and then state where you stand on the issue while empathising with the client. Keep your focus on the issue and don’t try to defend yourself or the organisation.You will not change a client’s mind by arguing or debating. Try to negotiate solutions. Obviously, a win–win situation would be ideal; however, if this is impossible to obtain, then seek a solution that is reasonable.
The following response attempts to calm the client down by showing them you understand their point of view:
‘I agree with you that it is unfair, and that you shouldn’t have to wait one hour when you already made an appointment one month ago. I also understand that you are busy and it is difficult to sit in an office when you have other matters you need to attend to. Unfortunately staff numbers are low today, so we were unable to see you immediately. I apologise for the inconvenience. Would it be possible to make another appointment later in the week, at an earlier time of day, so you won’t have to wait as long?’
An angry person rarely responds to logic or explanation until they have calmed down.
If a client stays angry or becomes overly aggressive:
- Make it clear that you are willing to discuss the problem, but not to engage in a fight or be intimidated.
- Keep calm and repeat to the client that you are there to listen to them.
- Terminate the discussion if the other person remains angry. (For example, ‘We don’t seem to be getting anywhere at the moment. I’ll need to talk to my supervisor.’)
- Call security or the police if you feel threatened.
- Leave the situation if you feel in immediate danger.
(Adapted from McGrath & Edwards 2000)
Only when the client has calmed down and is ready to think and behave rationally can you begin to discuss the problem and work together to find a solution. One model for doing this is negotiation and conflict management techniques (win–win solutions).
Let’s look at these techniques a little more closely now.
Negotiation and conflict management
- Identify the apparent conflict or problem. This is a starting point only, and further investigation may be needed to identify the actual conflict/problem.
- Understand and explore the conflict/problem:
- What are the issues?
- Who or what is causing the conflict/problem?
- When does it occur?
- How long has the conflict/problem been occurring?
- In what situation does this occur?
- What evidence will indicate if it has been resolved?
- What feelings are involved?
- Is there conflict in values or attitudes?
- Identify the actual conflict:
- Get clear about the actual problem (this may take time).
- Decide what must be achieved to resolve the situation.
- State the terms of the goal to be reached.
- Use specific terms.
- Identify alternatives: List all possible solutions – brainstorm if necessary.
- Explore alternatives:
- Who is involved?
- What is the ‘cost and effort’ of the solution?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of the possible solution?
- What are the consequences of each alternative?
- How do the parties involved feel about each option?
- What are the feelings of the parties involved?
- Choose course of action:
- List the alternatives that are probable and improbable.
- List the alternatives that need more information before judgement is passed.
- Most decisions are reversible.
- Implement course of action:
- Choose one or two alternatives or strategies for change to trial.
- Identify the steps involved for the group or individual to achieve the solution.
- Identify the level of success.
- Assign responsibilities for implementing the decision.
- Evaluation is continual.
- If the outcome does not lead to the desired goal, new goals may need to be identified.
- Ask questions of the party:
- How well did they do?
- What did I learn?
- Am I satisfied?
- What could I have done differently?
Think about a conflict situation with a client that either you or a coworker are experiencing or have experienced. Often the reasons behind conflict can be obscured until further information is sought. Explore and evaluate the various aspects of the conflict considering the eight points above. (If possible, see if you can conduct or participate in a brainstorming session with your co-workers)