How to be an instant therapist?
August 31, 2016 3:34 AM   Subscribe

As part of my job I have to work on a hotline dealing with members of the public including distressed, angry and possibly abusive callers. I don't feel I have the social skills to be naturally good at this but we weren't given a choice. What tips and tricks have you got for me? What do you wish you had known before starting a role like this one?
posted by EatMyHat to Human Relations (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Have a read up about self care and put a strategy in place so you can soothe yourself in healthy ways when you've had a distressing time dealing with these people
posted by Chrysalis at 3:54 AM on August 31, 2016

Don't let yourself get caught in the position of trying to defend your employer against the callers. If they say "you guys released a new batch of widgets that are total crap!" don't get caught up in arguing that the widgets are not in fact crap (unless it's your job to do so).

Let angry callers vent but don't feel you have to carefully listen to the venting. Turn the phone volume down and put yourself on mute so you can hear them but you have some distance from the venting. When they start to lose steam, turn the volume back up and start steering towards a solution. "Well, Ms. Caller, I think I can help you with this."

Make sure you know the protocols for when callers need to be re-routed to a manager or when it is acceptable to terminate a call.
posted by bunderful at 4:33 AM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think the answers should depend a lot on whether your role is to help the caller with a specific task or problem, such as figuring out healthcare options or tax assistance, or if your role is only to listen and help the caller process their feelings, such as working a suicide hotline.

I used to work in phone support doing the former kind of work. I dealt with angry and upset people and came up with some scripts to smooth things out. "I can see why you found that so frustrating! Let's figure out how we can prevent that from happening again/get to the bottom of that/file a ticket. Can you please tell me what kind of browser you're using/the date you heard from them last/try visiting this website and filling out the boxes?"

In this kind of call, my strategy was 1. Acknowledge their feelings. 2. Assure them that I am going to help them. 3. Suggest the task to work on. With really upset people, I would sometimes end up spending more time on those first couple of steps, or cycle through them a few times.

Occasionally I had callers who would scream, or swear or be otherwise verbally abusive. Here I was extremely lucky that my supervisors allowed us to set boundaries with callers. We were empowered to tell callers"Mr. Screamer, I am happy to help you but I can't do that if you're swearing at me. Can you lower your voice please? If not I'm going to end the call now." Threats of violence would actually get them banned from our service. I suspect my company was rare in extending that kind of respect to its employees, but if you're not sure, ask!

Other strategies for the first kind of call: knowing when to circle back, and how to end the call when things are off track: "I understand, ma'am. Sorry to interrupt, but I want to make sure this gets resolved for you! One thing we haven't tried yet is chachacha." Or, "Sir, I get your feelings on that. I think we've covered everything we can in our call today, so I'm going to end the call so we can go ahead and file this. Thanks so much for calling and let us know if it happens again, ok?" For rambling callers, I would say, "I understand. I think we've touched on those points already. What specifcally would you like to result from the rest of our call today? If we've covered it all, I don't want to keep you from the rest of your day." My scripts may not work if you are in a call center with very specific rules and metrics.

For those callers with very intense emotions, who were not abusive, I tried to infuse empathy into my voice and allow them to vent a little. On preview: I absolutely used the muting trick Bunderful described! And the suggestion of not getting caught up in blame games is also excellent. I also kept a stress ball at my desk.

For the second kind of call (a suicide line/emotional support line, etc.) I really think you need specific training, so I won't make any suggestions.
posted by prewar lemonade at 4:48 AM on August 31, 2016 [18 favorites]

One more tidbit: if there's a little bit of downtime in a call, say while you're looking up an answer, asking a location specific question can help flip the script a bit. Again, only if this is allowed per your organization's metrics. "Oh, I see you're from New Mexico. Have you ever been to the Carlsbad Caverns? I'd love to go there someday." Know your audience, but even some of the most angry people soften up a little when asked a civil question.
posted by prewar lemonade at 5:01 AM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

I had a job like this, and now I'm a medical student, which means I'm kind of training for a job like this...

Remember that a lot of people just need to be heard before they can even think about solving their problem. To me this is sort of akin to when I come home at the end of a hard day, I want to rant and rave about went wrong before I let a loved one make suggestions or give me advice.

Give the caller space to rant and rave, but when it's your turn to speak (do not interrupt -- really most people are unlikely to go on for more than a minute or two, although that can feel like forever), give them the validation they need and establish that you are on their side and understand their complaint. Start with an expression of support: "That sounds really frustrating," "I'm sorry things haven't been going well for you," etc. Even if the problem is 100% the customer's fault or 100% not your area, you can still validate their frustration human-to-human, which will defuse a lot of situations quickly.

Next, summarize what they've told you and tell it back to them in their own words. Something like, "Let me see if I got this straight: you did X, and then Y, and now you're having trouble with Z. Did I get that right?" Now they know you were listening, you've reframed their angry abusive story into a straightforward one, and you've shown that you want to help them enough that you need to get their story right. Even if you get a few things wrong when you summarize, it still builds rapport because you're giving them the chance to correct you.

After that, the majority of people will have calmed down enough that you can at least have a normal call if not a pleasant one.

Finally, if you find yourself starting to get heated or defensive, put them on hold for a minute (don't forget about them!!!) until you can come back to the call with a more constructive attitude.
posted by telegraph at 5:24 AM on August 31, 2016 [5 favorites]

Oh hey my last job was like this (most of my job not customer-focused at all, but I had to answer calls from our stakeholders and I worked at a very politically sensitive organization, where members of the community were frequently emotional / upset / angry with us / angry with the world). I also wasn't given any "training" and am not naturally very good at this sort of thing.

Tips and tricks that worked for me were:
- If it's possible (big "if"), compartmentalize that part of your job into specific times. I had a mandate to reply to emails and calls within a week, so I was pretty easily able to decide I would check the voicemail / email twice a week and get everything done at once, and not fall over myself to answer the calls in between (i.e. I did answer when the line rang, but didn't stress if I wasn't able to get to it or if I was working on something else that required concentration).
- Get *very* familiar with what you can actually do for people and with the process for doing so. So you always have a baseline when someone is shouting at you about whatever problem like, I know exactly what we (the organization) can offer to help this problem and how it all works. So you can always keep coming back to that - it's the limit of what you can offer for a solution.
- Relatedly, be honest about what you can do. This sounds super obvious but honestly I was shocked when I first started by how easy it is to lie to someone when they are really upset and you just want them to calm down / go away. I would catch myself promising things I knew we could not deliver or just fudging details ("oh yes, we're planning to get everything online in two years" when I know it's more like five years if at all). It's not helpful in the long run but it's a kind of panic response.
- This may depend on your organization but it helped me a lot to vent and de-stress after a difficult call by talking to my coworkers. They were all, to greater or lesser extents, used to dealing with the same stakeholder groups and we could swap horror stories and commiserate with each other. And it helped me to be reassured that I hadn't done anything "wrong."
- Agree with the advice above about listening calmly to venting / not getting caught up in blame games. I developed a distinct "hmmmm" noise that I used, sort of saying, yes I am listening but I don't necessarily agree, but I don't disagree, and I sympathize that this is hard. Also peppered with "that sounds hard," or "I'm so sorry to hear that." If people started in on our organization I would usually say something like "it was a difficult decision" or "a lot of [group] do feel that way" or just silence and then a change of subject. Some of this is really nebulous and will depend on where you work and how much leeway you have to acknowledge any mistakes or differences of opinion.

Finally, never be afraid to reach out to whoever you can if you are having trouble - your security team if you have one, HR / employee assistance program, your manager, etc.
posted by cpatterson at 8:12 AM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

I used to do high-level customer service and I just want to second that it's very important to empathize and repeat. I swear I've said "I'm so sorry to hear that" and "let me make sure I have this right" about a million times.

I always kept a notepad with me to write down everything the caller said - their name, and contact information. Even though I was required to note everything in our CMR, it helped me to have very detailed notes that I could condense when I better understood the situation, and it kept my typing while talking to a minimum.

I often had to research issues and call people back later. If that was the case, I would make sure I had the right number and give an accurate time frame for a return call. If I didn't have a resolution in the time frame I told them, I would still call back and let them know. When you are returning a call, people tend to be calmer. Sometimes, when talking to a very distressed or worked-up caller, I would offer to look into something and call them back, even though I knew there was nothing I could do.

For the most part, people aren't upset with you personally and understand that you're just the person answering the phone. If someone is rude or threatening, there will probably be a standard way for you to handle that - we said "Please try and avoid abusive language or I will need to disconnect this call". Sometimes there is a middle ground - where someone is kind of nasty but hasn't really crossed a line - in those cases, I would practice "kill them with kindness" and just go overboard with niceties.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 8:32 AM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

One thing I noticed when doing tech support was that if I answered in a pleasant way, and immediately segued into asking something neutral-ish, it helped defuse a little of the emotion. So a "good morning, how can I help you?" would lead to venting, a "Good morning, you've reached ldthomps at foocom, can I get your user ID and location first?" would lead to my being more in control of the call, and better able to help the caller.
posted by ldthomps at 9:08 AM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think this might help you.

I worked for a health insurance company back in the day. I had many calls from people who
were almost out of control.

My stock statement to people, who were understandably upset and yelling or crying, was:

"Mrs/Mr. so and so, I need you to stop crying/yelling so we can work together on your problem and find a solution."

This worked just about everytime.
posted by donaken at 3:05 PM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a licensed therapist. If you're working a call-center-type job, you should not be using therapy skills. If you're working a crisis-hotline job, you should be using therapy skills but they should be teaching those to you. Could you clarify your role?
posted by lazuli at 8:48 PM on August 31, 2016

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