Learn to deal with hostile and angry and difficult customersChapter II - Part 2

The Nature of Hostile, & Abusive Behavior

In this chapter, from Defusing Hostile Customers Workbook, we introduce some important definitions, and explain when and how people learn to be verbally aggressive. We also discuss the needs of angry people, and the rules of the abuse game. To read all the free material from this book click here.

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This is continued from here.


We can define violence as any activity that is either intended to cause, or can cause physical harm to another person, be it you, a coworker, or customer. Some actions involving physical contact, such as armgrabbing or shoulder grabbing can be legally interpreted as assault, so we include them in this category, even if they cause no physical harm. Other actions, such as throwing things would be considered violent behavior if there was intent to cause harm or harm was done. However, "actingout" behavior, such as ripping up papers and throwing them, or sweeping things off a desk are not violent by our definition. Abusive, yes. Hostile, yes.

Just a point or two about physical violence of this sort. Generally, this kind of behavior doesn't come out of the blue, but is part of a sequence of events that involves verbal abuse. What this means is that by learning to defuse hostility and verbal abuse, you are more likely to reduce the potential for physical violence.

Your first priority is to ensure your own physical safety, and the safety of those around you. For this reason, most organizations will accept that you have a right to remove yourself from a situation, or request backup assistance in situations where you feel physically threatened.

You don't have to be absolutely sure a physical threat exists. You just don't want to take chances. If your organization takes a different view, show this to your bosses!

Implications & Key Points

1. While we would like people to like us, and not be angry with us, if we choose this as a goal, we are bound to be disappointed. We try to make our customers happy, but the truth is that many government jobs involve giving bad news that is going to make people unhappy.

Verbal abuse includes: persistent swearing yelling sexist comments racist comments irrelevant personal remarks (e.g.. about your appearance) threats intimidating silence accusations of various sorts comments about your competency, knowledge, dedication

2. Anger is a feeling that belongs to the other person. It is hard to affect directly. Hostile and abusive behavior is another story. We want to focus our defusing efforts on reducing the amount of hostile verbal and nonverbal behavior. That is a realistic goal.

3. In a later chapter, we will flesh out the notion that abusive behavior is about control. The hostile or abusive person is trying to manipulate and control you and your decisionmaking. We want to make sure we don't allow this, and later we will discuss how to "countercontrol".

4. We need to provide some leeway for people to express their anger, provided the expressions are not demeaning, insulting or manipulative. If we react to every four letter word, twitch, or raised voice, we will go nuts, and we won't be very good at defusing the abusive situations.

Where Does Hostile/Abusive Behavior Come From?

While hostile or abusive behavior is always unpleasant, the better we understand it, the more likely we are to remain in control of ourselves and the situation. Besides this very practical point, it is quite interesting to examine when people learn to be nasty, and what the process looks like. We will find that learning how to exhibit angry, hostile and even abusive behavior is a normal part of the human development process. What we should point out is that while virtually everyone knows how to be nasty, that doesn't make it acceptable. And, most people, having learned how to do it, also learn that it is not usually socially acceptable. Sometimes, it does seem that a lot of people missed that last bit.

At The Beginning

We are going to take a little time travelling trip, back to the time when you were born. When you entered the world, your task, whether you chose to accept it or not, was preassigned. Your goal was to learn how to master your environment, and how to act in it to receive the things you needed to survive (food, contact, stimulation, etc.). You needed to communicate with your caregivers, so they would be able to take care of you, but of course, you couldn't say "Golly, I sure am hungry", since you hadn't learned how to talk.

Luckily, you had other ways of communicating, ways that didn't require the use of words. You were "built" so when you experienced discomfort, you would express that discomfort in ways that your parents could react to. When you were hungry, you might cry, move and kick, and turn red in the face. Or, if you were wet, you probably would cry, move and kick, and turn red in the face. Actually, crying, moving, and kicking and turning red in the face were about the only things you could do, since you hadn't learned much else.

Now, what is a parent's natural response to the crying behavior? The parent would attempt to figure out what was making you uncomfortable, and then set about fixing the situation. You might be fed, or perhaps your diaper changed. Because your baby behavior wasn't exactly specific, your parents would have to try a few different things to calm you down.

Presumably, after your parents solved the problem, you were much more comfortable.

If you look at this cycle carefully, you find a perfect example of what psychologists call the effects of reinforcement. Most people just refer to this as the effects of reward. You naturally showed angry behavior when you were uncomfortable. This angry behavior was a signal to your parents that something was required. And, when they did what you "wanted", this reinforced the angry behavior.

What you learned was that crying, moving and kicking, and turning red in the face were dandy ways of controlling your environment. When you did so, magic happened, and you became more comfortable.

So, the seeds of learning were sown. You learned, on a very basic level, about angry behavior.

Later On That Same Life...

In the early years, prior to your learning how to talk, you continued to refine your skills at controlling the environment with your behavior. At some point, you may have discovered that throwing a toy at the wall was something almost guaranteed to garner attention, albeit unpleasant attention. You learned that grabbing a toy from a playmate could work really well, at least sometimes. You undoubtedly learned to sulk, pout, and make pleading noises.

So you got pretty good at that nonverbal stuff.

But then you started to learn language ... to talk. By the way, learning language is one of the wonders of childhood, since it seems to occur without teaching ... almost automatically. As you learned how to speak, you acquired additional tools to operate on your environment, to control it, and to manipulate it. And, not surprisingly, you learned how to use language in some rather unpleasant ways. You learned how to say NO, and how to ask for things in various tones of voice (begging, whining, angry, etc.). You learned that certain words create a big guffuffle (swear words), and discovered you could influence people by using them. You learned the basics of verbal influence or manipulation. Sure, the techniques didn't always work very well, but sometimes they did succeed. And, of course, they generated attention.

So, by now you can see that learning how to control the environment through angry and hostile behavior is learned very early. As people get older, they get better at it.

The truth is that by the time you get to be an adult, you are an expert in it. You know how to do it, how to make people mad, how to get people's attention, how to make other people feel guilty, and how to influence the behavior of others.

And In Adulthood...

Now, obviously, the fact that you learned these behaviors doesn't mean that you now spend all your waking moments being abusive or trying to manipulate others. You were also socialized that such behavior wasn't good (hopefully). But there is no question that you and billions of other members of the species know how to use these techniques. Even though you may not use them often, you are highly skilled.

Since most people learn that abusive, nasty behavior is not acceptable, how is it that we see so much of it?

Well, the first explanation is that some people haven't learned abusive behavior is inappropriate, or have some rationalization that they use to make it "seem" justified. But what about the others, people who do know that abusive behavior is not acceptable? A lot of "regular" people, perhaps most people, on occasion, use nasty or manipulative techniques on other people.

A little more knowledge about human behavior can help us understand why people use hostile behavior. Learning is a funny thing, it isn't a question of whether something is learned or not, but rather how well something is learned. In other words some things are not learned well, others are learned pretty well, and some things are learned very well, to the point where a person doesn't even have to think about carrying out the learned task (e.g.. driving, tying shoelaces, etc.). We call these last learned tasks overlearned tasks ... things that are learned really well, with lots of practice, so that the person is unlikely to forget.

OK! Before you start snoozing in the psychology lecture, let me get to the point. We also know that under normal circumstances a person who has learned something "pretty well" will use what they have learned. The exception is when they are emotionally upset. When people are upset, they revert back to earlier, more primitive, better learned behavior.

So, let's take a concrete example. We have a regular person who has learned a number of communication skills effective in conflict resolution, or problemsolving. Normally, when faced with situations where he/she is not overly upset, these skills will be used. The problem comes when the person is very angry, to the point where the adrenaline is pumping. At some point, if they become sufficiently "activated", they will revert back to behavior learned at an earlier time in life, and behavior that is well learned, and well practiced. You guessed it. The more primitive angry/hostile behaviors that worked so well early in life reemerge in the normally rational, calm adult. So that's what happens with your hostile customers.

As a little test of this theory, ever notice that adults who are hostile often behave like small children?

Some hostile customers are habitually nasty. But many hostile customers are normally rather polite people, who get sufficiently upset to revert back to the more childish behaviors they have overlearned during their lives.

And, most hostile people, although they may be trying to manipulate you, are not plotting and scheming to get you ... it doesn't work like that. There are very few individuals who actually plot out their strategies in a conscious manner. In a sense, most people are just acting human when they become abusive. They are doing what they are able to do. They don't know how to do things otherwise, given their internal emotional states.

Note that this does not excuse abusive behavior. The point here is that those people are reacting to their internal states and the situation, not to you personally. We will come back to this point when we talk about how you can maintain your own selfcontrol.

Other parts of this chapter and other excerpts
| Part 1 | | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Read Preface | Back to Main Book Page |

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Special Help: Prevent and Master Angry and Difficult Customers

Don't let difficult, angry customers control you. Learn to take control, stay cool, and remain professional in the toughest situations

Reviewer Praise From Amazon Readers

Bacal nails it! While more are messing with the entanglements of Customer Satisfaction which leads to no where...he addresses the specifics head on and focuses on the greater picture and ultimate goal of the Customer Experience which leads to Loyalty. Excellent job! (Macy in Oklahoma, 2013)

One of the best things I learned from this book is how to turn a negative experience into a positive one. Using the tools from this gem of a book I have calmed people down, turned bad situations into good, and kept customers who would have otherwise left us and written ten nasty reviews in their wake. It is so empowering to be able to do that, rather than feel awful and abused. This is a must buy, must read for people who work with customers day in and day out. Do it for your own sanity, and to help improve your own job performance and satisfaction! (E. Meehan, California, 2012)

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