While the risk of harm is reduced by engaging with a problematic client or customer over the phone, verbal aggression and abuse can still affect your employees’ emotional well being and sense of safety.
Studies have revealed that reactions to verbal and emotional abuse are neurologically the same as the way we react to physical pain. These studies were aimed at informing mental health and social welfare issues; nonetheless, they can be applied to create resilient workplaces, especially where your employees may be exposed to clients or customers who are aggressive and volatile.
Most HR departments can implement good self-care and OH&S well-being policies, but it is still important for employees to learn how to diffuse verbally volatile situations on the phone as well.
This is particularly important in health care and social services. Good phone etiquette can easily go awry when speaking to people with mental health issues or aggressive personalities. Some volatile phone calls can even lead to physical harm if the client or customer decides to take their malcontent further.
It is important to try and diffuse a volatile phone call rather than end it abruptly where possible. Customers who have been cooled-down are less likely to call back or act on their anger.
Some useful listening tips (many of which are used in call centres) to help reduce aggression over the phone include:
Listen with empathy – it is quite likely that the caller is already in a heightened emotional state and is not only looking for answers but is looking for an outlet for their emotions. It may not be possible to always help a caller, but it is important to understand where they are coming from and what their confusion or misunderstanding may be about.
Provide alternate solutions or avenues where possible – nothing increases aggression like rejection. If you are unable to help, it may be helpful to provide alternatives for the caller to take. Sometimes, you can offer to take notes and let the caller know that their problem can be discussed further with your team. However, do not promise them too much, there is only so much you can and should do! In the meantime, recommend other ideas or avenues that may provide a solution. If all else fails, direct them to your manager (with forewarning).
Alert your team/line manager – if a conversation is becoming uncontrollably volatile, you need to alert your team or line manager immediately. You should not have to bear the brunt of someone’s verbal abuse on your own. You can recommend to the caller that you can speak to your manager or inform them that your manager is listening in. This can sometimes have the effect of placating the caller or toning their aggression down, as they are now being ‘observed’ by a third party.
Ensure you remain anonymous – angry callers will sometimes ask for your name. While it may be acceptable to give your first name, it is important that you do not give them any more than that. Likewise, you never give an angry caller your direct extension number. It is important that they can only access your company through the main switchboard phone number. Repeat callers shouldn’t be permitted to request for the same person they spoke to before unless you are confident you can manage their query a second or third time.
Make a risk report and assessment – after a volatile call, it is important to brief your team and your manager of any threats or abusive comments that the caller may have made. If your company can record phone conversations, check if you can keep a copy for security reasons. Alert your security officers, or the police if any threats have been made. No threat should be considered too small. Likewise, you can also inform the aggressive caller that they have been reported to your management and to security as well.
Verbal abuse should never be tolerated, not at home, in public, nor the workplace. It is useful to be able to diffuse a caller’s heightened emotional state, but only when you feel you have the confidence to do so. Ultimately, an aggressive caller should be cut off if you feel you are becoming distressed or feel threatened. It will always take practice and confidence to deal with difficult phone calls, but learning these initial skills can still assist you in learning to make your ‘phone work’ feel safe.
For assistance in traning for and manaing violence in the workplace, including via phone, do not hestitate to contact Agilient.
The Agilient Team