How do I listen to angry and disgruntled people?

I get this question a lot. It’s a challenge to deal with people who are irritable, impatient, politically venomous, entitled and reactive. Some may have good reasons to be angry and disgruntled (you’ve been angry at times too, right?). Others are just depressed, anxious and generally dissatisfied with life. Yet, these people are important− family members, customers, patients− so you can’t just walk away. So, how do you avoid becoming defensive or retreat in the face of “displeasure?”  It’s not always possible to correct what irks them, but there are effective ways to cool them down, get to problem solving mode and make them happier.

I have found this approach so successful that, for years now, I have urged my office staff to send me any disgruntled clients, because I can work with them. I love seeing how transformable mindful listening can be. (I italicize “can” because some people are not consolable, no matter how you listen.)  Having this magic wand in your toolbox protects your health and well-being and contributes to the health and well-being of the disgruntled person. It goes like this:

  1. Invite the person into your office and close the door. Let them know you WANT to hear what they have to say.
  2. As they complain, scream and swear, listen with curiosity. Ask yourself: I wonder what makes her so angry, I just want to understand. Stay quiet, breathe slowly and keep your eyes on them. Don’t nod or indicate agreement.
  3. As they vent, do not fuel their fire. Do not interrupt, give excuses, or yell back at them. If they ask you a question, avoid hot button words like you, should, always, never, policy, clichés or slogans, etc.
  4. At this point, you may notice how they are physically calmer and their voices are a bit softer. Once they’ve finished talking, allow 10 slow seconds before you ask, “Is there anything else?” If they have nothing more to add, paraphrase their complaint in a few sentences. This is reassuring to your speaker and a major step toward problem solving.
  5. After they have accepted your version of their complaint, say “Thank you for letting me know how you feel about X.” Now, I know this is like thanking the officer who just gave you a $200 speeding ticket. But, chances are, they will be stunned into a state of greater cooperation and gratitude. Don’t be surprised if they thank you for listening.

P.S. A word of caution: Mindful listening does not mean you have to listen to everyone or everything. There are some people who are so angry and so toxic, that listening to them can put you in harm’s way. Avoid these interactions at all costs.

 

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