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How to put a fast stop to a staffer’s anger

Hidden in every manager’s job description is the dreaded duty of handling complaints from staffers—sometimes angry staffers.

It’s just a matter of knowing what to say and how to say it.

Stopping anger in its tracks

Managers’ most common responses to conflict are the two worst responses.

One is the response of being confrontational, dominating, sarcastic, hostile, and accusatory.

The other is the response of avoidance—apologizing, giving in, or just backing off.

The key to stopping conflict is far different. It’s active listening. That’s not agreeing, not disagreeing, and not getting defensive but listening and getting enough information to understand the situation from the other person’s perspective.

What that person says may be 100 percent wrong, but don’t strike back with “you’re wrong.” Instead, find out what’s causing the anger and do that by paraphrasing what the person just said.

Suppose a staffer comes in angry about a poor review. An active listening response might be to say, “You’re angry because you believe I am disappointed in your performance.”

Or suppose a staffer comes in angry about not getting requested vacation time.

Paraphrase the complaint: “What I’m hearing is that you are irritated that I wasn’t able to give you that time off for your vacation and you feel I have treated you unfairly. Have I interpreted that correctly?”

Paraphrasing “stops people right in their tracks.” It takes the wind out of their sails. The staffer is shocked: “Wow! I’m being heard. The manager is really listening to what I’m saying.”

A gentle probe into the emotions

From there, the manager can gently dig deeper to find out the reason for the anger. Probe for the staffer’s opinion and emotions, not for data. Say, “Tell me what bothers you most about this.”

The staffer might say, “You gave so-and-so a week off last month and now you are denying me my time.” Keep going: “And you are frustrated because you think I was unfair to you in denying your request.”

Now for the facts

Now start searching for the facts, and the key question to ask is, “What information did you have?”

For example, “You think I was unfair to you. What information did you have to come to that conclusion?”

Acknowledge whatever the staffer says, but don’t pass judgment on it and don’t admit to any fault. Just recognize the feelings; for example, “Given the information you have about my decision, I can see how that would make you feel you were treated unfairly.”

Coming down to the wire

Finally, it’s time to set the matter straight. And success depends on the way the response is worded.

Don’t start out with you as in, “You know this is our busiest time, so why did you even bother to ask to be off then?” A you sentence is accusatory and it puts people on the defensive. It’s also a betrayal. The manager has all the while been encouraging the staffer to tell all and now is coming back with a direct hit.

Replace the you attack with an I feel response followed by the other side of the picture, for example, “I feel frustrated too because I sent out an email at the beginning of the year saying no vacations would be allowed during this month because we are so busy.”

An I feel preface is good to use on any side of a confrontation. It’s one thing to make a demand of “you need to be more flexible.” It’s another to express a feeling: “I feel you need to be more flexible in this type of situation.”

Now the door starts to open

At this point, each side has explained its feelings and the manager can open the door to a resolution.

To do so ask, “Now that we understand each other’s personal feelings what can we do to resolve this?”

That sets the stage for a positive conversation. Optimally, the staffer will volunteer to be more understanding about the work schedule or to pay more attention to the manager’s emails.

And in response, the manager might volunteer to send out reminders of earlier memos so people don’t forget about them.

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