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Being a good listener’ is a critical skill
Much has been said and written about workplace violence, and the obvious threat it poses to the well-being of employees. Much has been written, as well, about the ongoing consequences of such violence, either physical or emotional, on the mental health of workers.
But knowing all this doesn’t help a wellness professional when they are confronted with an employee who is angry or upset. Can anything be done right then and there to stop things from getting out of hand?
Actually, there’s a lot you can do, says Eileen O. Brownell, president of Training Solutions, of Chico, CA. Training Solutions provides companies with conflict resolution, communications, and team-building programs.
Brownell recommends the following 11 techniques for defusing anger:
1. Act immediately.
"If I knew you were really upset and angry and if I allowed you to fester, the problem would become a mountain rather than a molehill," says Brownell. In other words, she says, waiting allows anger to boil into a potentially explosive situation. It may also send a message to the employee that you don’t care about their troubles. So how do you approach the employee? "Say, I feel you are really upset right now,’" advises Brownell. "If they reply that they are upset, ask them, Do you want to talk now?’ This puts the employee in control, but it also shows them you’ve noticed their problem." You should only delay addressing a situation if you feel the individual needs time to simmer down, or if you think professional assistance is needed.
2. Respect the individual.
Don’t patronize the employee with statements like, "Oh, you don’t really feel that way, do you?" or, "It’s no big deal, just let it go." This makes the employee feel like a little child, Brownell explains. "That makes them even more angry. Instead, recognize the problem, name it, and then honor the fact that the employee is angry." This can be done with a more appropriate question, like: "What is it about this situation that’s really frustrating you?" After all, you can’t deal with a problem effectively if you don’t know the particulars.
3. Meet in private.
Privacy will allow your meeting to be more productive, and it will eliminate the possibility of embarrassing the employee. If the individual is going to make violent or threatening statements, you don’t want other employees to see that kind of a threat. If they do make such statements, calmly remove yourself from the situation immediately.
4. Be silent.
"You want to let the employee go on and on and get the problem out in the open," says Brownell. "I may ask them to give me an example of what’s bothering them. For example, When did Harry do this to you?’ The key is, you don’t want the employee to feel you’re cutting him off. Get all the cards on the table to start to defuse the situation and resolve it. Let the employee get it all out, but don’t give back your own responses."
Listen. Listen again! You have to be a good listener to dissuade conflict, says Brownell. This is accomplished through a technique called reflective listening. "Give brief responses," she advises. "People have a tendency to justify themselves, and a long response from you just adds fuel to the fire; Address the anger, address what the problem is, and let them do most of the talking." You should, however, reiterate your understanding of the complaint in your own words. Say something like: "You’re feeling frustrated because Tom ignored your suggestion." Employees want to feel their opinions and their feelings count.
6. Give brief responses.
Lengthy explanations will only make the employee defensive. If someone protests with, "Well, you hate me and always have," a simple response would be: "That’s not true." Don’t debate the issue or begin to justify your actions.
7. Ban fault-finding.
Blame rarely helps an issue. Establish what went wrong and how it can be corrected, not who is wrong and why they made a mistake.
8. Discover the real problem.
A lot of times we have a tendency to ask yes’ or no’ questions, but they really don’t give us the information we want, notes Brownell. "Ask open-ended questions that allow the employee to expound on the situation," she advises. Questions like, "What happened when you didn’t receive the order?" or "Can you give me a specific example?" help clarify the situation.
9. Seek solutions.
"I encourage the employee to come up with the solution," says Brownell. Asks questions like: "How would you have handled that?" "How would you like me to handle this?" "What do you think our options are?" Again, those questions help the employee feel he is in control; it communicates that you honor and respect him. "It also shows a respect for the employee’s ability to handle problems — which is a great morale booster," says Brownell.
10. Find common ground.
Identify points you can agree upon and progress from there. Even if initially you can only agree that there is a problem, building a foundation for resolution on common ground will create a more solid relationship and remove barriers sooner.
11. Encourage discussion.
Some employees have to be drawn out. Try simple, nonthreatening questions such as, "Can I help you?" "You seem upset and frustrated. Is everything all right?" If the employee chooses not to respond, don’t push it; give them time to think it through.
If you master those techniques, you’ll be able to handle the vast majority of workplace conflicts you come across, says Brownell. "If a manager has really got good conflict resolution skills, he should be able to resolve 95% of these problems," she asserts.
Of course, there are times when you need to call in an outside professional. "When you are unable to find that common ground, unable to agree upon a situation, that’s when you need someone else to come in and mediate," says Brownell.
[For further information, contact: Eileen O. Brownell, Training Solutions, 153 Picholine Way, Chico, CA 95928. Telephone: (888) 324-6100. E-mail: Trainstars@aol.com.]