I want to be calm like Hanibal Lecter but my eye twitches
May 28, 2014 1:35 PM   Subscribe

I work in an academic institution and on a daily basis I have to deal with various instances of fraud/misrepresentation, false documents and fake identities. These are not matters of academic integrity as they pertain more to academic and personal records. Part of my job is to maintain accurate records and confront the individuals in question with the evidence in an attempt to get the real story. This is where it gets fun.

I consider myself professional and rational in explaining the evidence and the policies I need to follow, however as these conversations escalate in denial and the other individual gets confrontational or argumentative, I have a hard time hiding my frustration and maintaining my confident composure. I start showing signs of vulnerability (my voice starts quivering, hands shaking, cheeks flushing etc.) and I need some tips on how to deal with this so I can maintain control of the situation and handle the conversation in a calm, cool, composed manner.

What sort of self-talk or strategies can I apply to handle these type of situations? (fwiw: these conversations never get verbally or physically aggressive, as at that point I would call campus police).

Thank you
posted by Karotz to Human Relations (12 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I feel like I give a variations on this advice quite a bit, and I'm sure more responsible people will come in soon recommending meditation and breathing exercises and therapy, but I would actually, literally, try pretending to be Hannibal Lecter. Like, get yourself a cool tie that has Hannibal-ish qualities. Adopt a mannerism or two that makes you feel coolly evil. Think of a catchphrase you could work into conversation without anyone noticing. And then, whenever you find yourself getting nervous when you're talking to someone, narrow your eyes at the guy and imagine eating him.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 1:43 PM on May 28, 2014 [16 favorites]

This was a great askMe about facing difficult people.

This was my favorite comment.

tl;dr - It's not about you. Their blustering is not about you. It's not you vs. them; its them vs. the facts. You are curiously questioning to find out the truth and their emotional reaction is none of your responsibility.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:44 PM on May 28, 2014 [8 favorites]

Your brain is dumping is adrenaline and your body is reacting. I've found it is personally a waste to fight the adrenaline being dumped, and much more effective to anticipate it, acknowledge that is is happening internally, and recognizing that it's a natural reaction. Think about how the situation usually "flows", understand when it's going to kick in, and it is much easier to manage how you express it.

It can also help to think about the other person is likely experiencing the same thing.
posted by Benjy at 2:26 PM on May 28, 2014

Best answer: When other people get confrontational and argumentative, take a step back. Sometimes literally, sometimes just pausing and thinking deeply about your reaction and what you're going to say. Remember that a lot of confrontation and argumentation is based on DECIDE RIGHT NOW BEFORE YOU CAN THINK ABOUT IT, because the other person knows that if you think about it, you'll see that they are incorrect. Engage the facts rather than the emotions, and engage the basic facts before engaging the facts that rely on those basic facts.

When someone starts arguing, just lean back in your chair, let them argue, wait for them to stop talking, take a breath, and say calmly, "I heard you saying that this birth certificate is accurate. However, our rules state that this a birth certificate must have a raised seal from the county registrar. This does not have a raised seal from the county registrar. Therefore, I cannot accept it."

If they interrupt you, stop talking, wait for them to stop talking, take a breath, and calmly go back to where you were before they interrupted you and proceed from there. If they interrupt you again, do the same thing. Tell them you're doing that: "Going back to the issue of the birth certificate, our rules state that it must have a raised seal from the county registrar..." Just keep doing that, and they'll eventually recognize that they're not getting anywhere and calm down.
posted by Etrigan at 2:29 PM on May 28, 2014 [9 favorites]

Forcing myself to speak extra slowly and quietly helps me when the person I'm speaking with gets flustered and aggressive.
posted by quince at 2:31 PM on May 28, 2014

If nothing else works, you might try a beta-blocker, such as propranolol. Musicians use them to control stage fright. These drugs act by blocking the effect of adrenaline, so they would prevent the reaction you describe (shaking hands, quivering voice, etc.).

Mind you, I'm not recommending this as a first-line treatment, as drugs always have side-effects. Just throwing it out there as a possibility in case other strategies fail.
posted by alex1965 at 2:49 PM on May 28, 2014

More Spock, less Kirk.
Seriously, pretend you're Vulcan.
Logical, cool, calm, collected.
Speak slowly.
Soft eyes.
Become rooted in fact, not emotion.
Don't get caught up in their drama.
Put this or even this on your desk or desktop to remind you.
posted by John Kennedy Toole Box at 4:31 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you have to realize that this isn't personal. They're not lying to you, as a person. Other than your paycheck, you don't have an actual stake in this. People's misrepresentation isn't directed at you. You don't have to confront them--you're just asking questions. They're not under oath.
Take a step back, detach a bit from getting the TRUTH, and ask the questions, because you need to fill out the forms. When someone gives you bluster and/or an obvious fictitious answer, I'd suggest reminding them that you need consistent information, and thus, they should please just tell you. I'm not saying let them slide with lies and false info, but treat it more as a slightly boring task and less as a trial. When people feel at ease with you, they tend to tell the truth.
(I used to interview people on-camera for a living, and I always let them see me with lipstick on my front tooth, because really, how threatening could I be--some lady with lipstick on her teeth?)
posted by Ideefixe at 4:32 PM on May 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have some advice and will need to give you a quick back story so you can see where I am coming from (you can skip the next paragraph if you do not want the back story).

For years I was the only person handling the 9-5 toll free donation hotline of a very respectable and internationally known charitable organization. On night hours the line went to a call centre service. I was supposed to have a back-up (to answer the phone if I was on the line with a donor or member of the public with questions) but in reality these back-ups would quit constantly - so I would be left months without support. On the phone I often had people screaming at me, had people with mental health issues calling me regularly, and most painful of all, had lonely seniors calling me because it was the only thing they had worth looking forward to. Some struck me as very troubled and depressed but since they could not afford therapy called toll free hotlines (I am proud to say I was a good listener and friend for them). This isn't half as traumatizing as your situation, because the phone adds a layer of protective distance

My first suggestion is that you must realize the people who decide to be pushy with you just do not have manners or self-control. Maybe this is a politically incorrect thing to say, but I firmly believe if someone is getting angry with an employee with public facing duties who is getting paid a low salary (such as telemarketer or waitstaff) the angry person is just a very pitiful person. A rough day can explain being curt with someone but cannot explain nastiness. Ask yourself - would a person like this have real friends? Of course not, because they are not nice people and disrespect random strangers who are just doing their job. If they can't control themselves with a stranger who has only "hurt" them in a superficial way, how on earth can they control themselves with friends and family who "hurt" them more intimately?

My second suggestion is that, as you continue in your job, you will become more accustomed to this, even as you remain a soft-hearted and kind person. Gentle people who are doctors become more alert to people who exaggerate their illnesses, yet the best doctors never lose their gentleness even as they grow more aware of these exaggerations. Noble lawyers become aware of clients that are hiding things and trying to work the system, yet these lawyers maintain their ethics and do not let their personal feelings stop them from representing the client as best as they can. Maybe your job is not as glamorous as a doctor or lawyer but you should keep the same mindset and focus on the dignity that comes with doing the best job you can.

My next suggestion is to look to the future. There is nothing wrong if you feel the demands of the job are threatening your well being. Make a plan to move on to something better, and keep that in mind as you count the weeks to your new position. Returning to my back story, a lot of great people quit their role because it was hard to deal with the drama daily. They were excellent staff members but did not have the strength to deal with the sort of abuse customers gave them. This is no failing. Sometimes a job is just not cut out for your personality. This doesn't mean you failed at all. For example, someone who loves animals and cannot stand to see them suffer may not be a great veterinarian (they see horrific things and have to put animals down a lot) but would make an amazing no-kill shelter worker or ethical breeder.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 8:43 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

As Etrigan mentioned above, nothing gets people talking like silence. If they say something, and you don't respond, they will often fill the silence, and the more talking and "explaining" they do, the more likely they will be to dig their own hole.

You could also be unflappable without being cold.
Say, don't imagine you're Hannibal. Imagine you're Edie McClurg. Or Dolores Umbridge. Being a ready hand with those vapid 4-H Club platitudes can be really disarming.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 9:47 PM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have to do the same thing you do, although in a different setting. There are several things I do to maintain an even keel:

1) I make sure that I am very clear about the regulations and policies that govern what I am asking for and about, and I communicate that understanding all the time. I cite policy, I quote regulation. There are two reasons for this. On the one hand, it communicates to the person with whom I am dealing that the "conversation" is really between them and the regulations. The other thing it does it remind me that the conversation is between them and the regulations. It's useful to remember that I'm not being some hardass, I don't need to get upset, I'm helping them to understand requirements that are outside of my preferences. Quoting the regulation also makes me more confident, which, paradoxically, allows me to calm down. If getting hyped up is partly about displaying power, my access to the regulations is the ultimate trump card.

2) I never answer a question to which I do not know the answer. I tell people that I will have to check and get back to them, and then I check and get back to them as soon as the meeting is over. I will sometimes say what I think the regulation or policy is, but I'm sure to be contingent and let them know that I will confirm with them as soon as I can. This avoids arguments that are about "well, you said..." and allows me to preserve my reliance on the policies. Again, it's not me or my opinion, it's the policy.

3) I'm honest about when I think regulations and policies are not meeting our needs as well as they should, but I also understand our regulations and policies well enough to justify all those that I agree with. This may or may not work for you, as my job actually entails writing many of the policies and regulations I am enforcing.

Overall, my strategy is to think of myself as the conduit for the rules, and I support the intent of the rules, so I feel pretty good about that. It does wonders for those difficult situations, which are sometimes worse when you like the person you are speaking with than when they are belligerent.
posted by JohnLewis at 5:36 AM on May 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yes, I like the answers about acting a role, that's what I do. I'm nervous and I react strongly to confrontation, too, heart pumping, etc., but I have learned to act in a kind of phony, concerned way, which distracts me from my nerves. I don't think it's noticed by people (angry customers at a bar), but I call it "pretending to be a great person." I think of myself as developing the persona, that the angry customer is not talking to me, but to "Helpful and Concerned."

Since you mentioned Hannibal Lector, I suggest you consciously adopt a mannerism or a tone of voice you associate that character, and play the role.
posted by feste at 9:24 AM on May 29, 2014

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