Defusing Hostile Interactions

“I’m the front desk person for a child protection agency. Clients come to our office after their children have been taken from them. They are angry, confused, embarrassed, and want their kids back. They don’t see themselves as responsible for what happened. In their view, our agency did this to them.

“These clients often yell and swear at me. I still need to be professional and polite. I’ve been in my job for just a couple of months and already the stress is getting to me. What can I do to defuse these hostile interactions?”

Great question!

Front line customer service jobs can be damaging to your wellbeing.  While child protection may be on the far end the “hostile situation” continuum, working directly with the public means you’ll encounter all sorts of behavior.  Often a client is angry at what’s happened to them before they even meet you.  They see you as the face of the organization not matter how nice a person you actually are.

It’s a tough position to be in. You want to maintain empathy, civility and professionalism in the face of hostile treatment. You don’t want to get sucked into their anger and become hostile yourself.  But you also don’t want it to affect your health and wellbeing.

What to do? Well, actually, there are proven strategies to defuse hostile interactions.  It starts with becoming aware of key drivers of social behavior.

One framework describing these drivers is called the SCARF Model. Developed by David Rock of the Neuroleadership Institute, the SCARF Model describes five experiences that can produce either a threat or reward state:

Status: One’s sense of importance relative to others

Certainty: One’s need for clarity; ability to predict or anticipate the future

Autonomy:  One’s sense of control over events

Relatedness: One’s sense of connection to and security with others

Fairness: One’s perception of fair exchanges between people

Any or all of these can produce a threat or reward state. What’s important is to minimize social threat, maximize social reward and offset threats with rewards.

Let’s go back to the front desk person. What might she do to minimize threat, maximize reward or offset threats with rewards?

A starting point might be to recognize that the people who come to her desk have experienced significant threats in almost all of the SCARF areas. Their kids have been taken away from them, a loss of status and potentially relatedness. They don’t know what’s going to happen: Uncertainty. They have no control over what’s occurring to them: Autonomy. They don’t feel a sense of relatedness with the workers at the agency.  And, from their perspective, the whole situation is completely unfair.

What happens when we experience a threat? We prepare to fight or flee. Our hearts race, our reasoning brain shuts down, chemicals course through our bodies to make us stronger and faster.  This is called being triggered.

We react to social threats with in the same way that we react to physical threats.  Most likely, the families who come to the child welfare office are already triggered. One basic fact about people in a triggered state is that they aren’t thinking clearly or being reasonable. It’s not even a choice; it’s human physiology.

Recognizing that the people who come into the office are likely to be already triggered, a good place for our front desk person to start is by greeting people calmly and from a place of empathy. Even if you haven’t been through the same experience, you can probably empathize with what it’s like to feel embarrassed, lacking control, or with no idea about what’s going to happen.

A next step might be to ask, “How can I help you?” That simple question provides just a small amount of autonomy to the other person but it can make a difference.

Additionally, it may help to reduce uncertainty by letting the person know what the next step is for them and when it might happen: “You will be seeing a case worker. He’s on the phone right now but it should be about twenty minutes before he can talk to you.”

These are just small examples of how our front desk person might maintain empathy, civility and professionalism in the face of hostility. You can probably come up with examples more relevant to your circumstances. But the key is recognizing that you can increase the chances of an interaction going smoothly if you understand that social threats produce the same reaction as physical threats. This simple awareness can go a long way toward defusing hostile interactions.