Help me disarm through humor
November 13, 2018 2:42 PM   Subscribe

Have a work situation where the customer is ANGRY; what is your best humorous and or kind ways to de-escalate? Working with a tough crowd here: community college freshman

It's at the point in the semester where students are stressed and some of them are unhappy with their grade and some of them are sort of bottling up their resentments which spill out when they are dealing with me. Case in point, this happened today:

Me: Oh, I didn't receive the paper, sorry. You do have it saved, right?
Student: (like through gritted teeth) I. printed. It. Out.

Now here is where I was like no I mean saved on your computer so you can print it out again and sorry if I lost it and she said some more sentences that were ANGRY but would look anodyne or nonsensical in print because she was ANGRY and being careful to not lash out. The issue was resolved but her boiling resentment appeared to remain.

I am cool with the fact that sometimes you just get angry students, especially where I teach where often students have crazy lives. I am cool with knowing when I need to get someone else from the school involved.

Sometimes though, in these interactions I do have a certain amount of freezing up because lordy I don't want to tell a joke and have it explode on me. I don't want to insult them or make them angrier. I think that tension in me, even though I'm not about to blow my stack or anything, might be adding a bit a fuel to the fire. That tension is draining and I'd like it to stop. Again, it's not an urgent thing, if it was I'd know what channels to follow, but it's a frustrating thing and it's not the first time I've wanted some more tools in my human interaction tool box to deal with it.

Anyway! I am also cool with the fact that teaching Freshman Comp 101 may be a thankless task and there's no verbal ninja moves that will restore these students to the path of light and non-anger. But! If you have some tricks up your sleeve--not discipline, not intimidation, but just human skills to win an irate student over--I'd love to hear them.

posted by angrycat to Education (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Different situation, but I've had some success in customer-facing jobs by cheerfully saying "Thanks for being so [understanding/patient/helpful] with this!" when someone is absolutely not being that thing.
posted by ITheCosmos at 2:46 PM on November 13, 2018 [12 favorites]

But! If you have some tricks up your sleeve--not discipline, not intimidation, but just human skills to win an irate student over--I'd love to hear them.

Other people will be able to articulate this more clearly than I can but you need to rephrase and emphasise. It isn't "sorry if I lost it" it's "I know you (did X Y Z) and I know you must be really frustrated. What we can do is..." or "...and I'm sorry that we're not going to be able to..."

Do not tell jokes. Empathy diffuses better than jokes about things that are not funny.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:50 PM on November 13, 2018 [83 favorites]

Not sure I have suggestions for humor. But, "You do have it saved, right?" is a formulation that (in the mind of the already frustrated and stressed listener) can be heard as "Well, you didn't do something stupid by not saving it, right?" That's not what you said, of course. But, you've already seen that what you said and what was heard can be two different things.

Better response (perhaps): Oh, I didn't receive the paper. Let's see what we can do to solve this.

This formulation positions you as someone who wants to solve the problem, while inviting the student to accept some accountability for the solution.
posted by John Borrowman at 2:51 PM on November 13, 2018 [12 favorites]

I would not risk a joke in this situation. All my customer service training and experience says use reflection, acknowledgement, and kindness, like:

I know this is massively stressful/this is a stressful time...
Okay, let's work the problem
This is fixable/we can fix this
Thanks for being patient (like ITheCosmos says, even when they're not really)
It's going to be okay

The closest I would come to a joke is something like, "The good news is that this is not fatal, what you need to do is..."

Lead with some kind of good news, if you have any, and you will create less anticipation that a blow is coming. For the most part, in the power structure you're dealing with, that's the real issue: they're freaked out, you have all the power to blow off their problem, so if you reassure them up front that you're listening, you want to help, there's probably a solution, that goes a long way to providing a vent for the anxiety that's fueling the anger.

And if you don't have good news, if they are screwed, state that clearly up front. "This can't be undone and the consequences are X and the next steps are Y."
posted by Lyn Never at 2:53 PM on November 13, 2018 [16 favorites]

I've used the HEARD Method before to good success in both customer service and educator settings; Hear, Empathize, Apologize, Resolve, Diagnose.

Depending on the situation I try to frontload Apologize and Resolve, which is what I might recommend here: it sounds like you lost her paper, and it might have come across to her like you were suggesting she resolve it, or that it was her problem you didn't have it? I'd say, "Gosh--I don't have your paper. Don't worry, it's ok! We'll figure out a solution together".

(on preview, yes--put yourself and the student on the same side of the problem, which in this case is the missing paper)
posted by stellaluna at 2:54 PM on November 13, 2018 [7 favorites]

In this case I wouldn't try to be funny, I would mimic their distress. "Oh, my goodness, it must have gotten lost in the shuffle, somehow. I'm so sorry! Please send it to me right away, by email. If I don't see it in x time, I will let you know, and we'll figure it out" Students usually have more than one paper they've been working hard on. This kind of response recognizes that.
posted by Enid Lareg at 2:56 PM on November 13, 2018 [8 favorites]

OK, the persona you want here is Embattled Customer Service Rep Who Is Unperturbed By The Mountains Of Shit That Get Dumped On Her Daily

Mind, you should not be getting mountains of shit dumped on you daily in your job. If that is your reality, your job sucks. But as a fictive backstory to serve as a lodestar for your difficult customer service interactions, it's fucking golden.

You are:

* Actively listening
* Solutions-oriented
* Willing to pretend you didn't hear the occasional snide comment or muttered aside
* Not necessarily cheerful, but determinedly positive
* Well-versed in every flavor and permutation of customer rudeness, so nothing can possibly shock you or throw you off your customer service game

You are never:

* Matching their tension
* Defensive
* Primed for an argument
* Tired or resentful of customer bullshit
* Fake or patronizing

I don't know if you should make jokes or not. How good are your jokes? Serious question.

Their anger is not yours; do not take it on. You can observe and note their anger, but it should not change the way you deal with them. It is not your responsibility to diffuse their anger; your only obligation is to provide them with the information, service, and assistance they are entitled to. You do that to the best of your ability regardless of their attitude, and how they feel about it when they walk away is entirely their own problem. This advice is not applicable for threatening, violent, or abusive customers.
posted by prize bull octorok at 3:20 PM on November 13, 2018 [7 favorites]

[I teach at a CC] I'm a little confused by the question...was it actually your fault that you lost assignment, or the student's fault because they never turned it in? Because it kind of matters how you respond. (Also, are we talking paper submissions or online like Blackboard?)
"Wow, I never got it. Let's retrace your steps."
"I'm so sorry, it got lost in the shuffle. Do you have it saved?"
If it's something that is your fault and they have to redo it... well.. I would be hyper-apologetic and give them extra time.
If it's their fault (and you've clearly laid out the expectations, reminders to save, etc.), well, you don't owe them anything. "I never got it. What do you think happened?" "I submitted it! Why didn't you get it?" "Well, I kept careful track of my paper/online submissions, and I don't have anything from you. Let's take a look at the syllabus regarding late papers."
Comp 2 professors will only thank you for not passing those who don't do the work.
posted by starman at 3:26 PM on November 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

It's a question of I don't know whose fault it was; one of my cats could've eaten it. And I was real careful to say just give me another copy and we're good.

But! I have not been thinking about empathy! That's a good one! That's part of what I'm losing when a student is really in my grill, because part of me is like stop stop stop stop and wanting to end the moment as soon as possible.

So thank you all for the customer rep training; I never knew such wisdom lied therein.

Also my jokes suck and usually consist of dark sarcasm so--no, I won't be doing that, thanks for the warning.
posted by angrycat at 3:32 PM on November 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

Can you take a deep breath and do a brief, physical stretch, even something as small as rolling your shoulders, at these times? On the surface, the act is meant to release physical tension, but I think it can also diffuse internal/emotional tension for you (and for the frustrated student opposite you). Or you can mentally link a subtler move like cleaning your glasses with reminding yourself how you want to be calm and empathetic during these exchanges.

(Unasked-for side note: if your students, with their crazy lives, are bottling stuff up and you're getting to enjoy the fallout from that because as a cool, approachable teacher you're their safety valve, that's not fair to you. If there are repeat offenders in any given semester, a brief elevator speech about your school's counseling or other support services might come in handy.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:49 PM on November 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's a question of I don't know whose fault it was; one of my cats could've eaten it.

I've known several professors to log when they receive physical homework, which is probably a good idea--next time you'd have an accountability mechanism. I'd have been particularly pissed in community college if an instructor lost my work, because I didn't own a computer, often had very limited time to work on anything, and was broke enough that the $1.50 it cost me to print it in the lab could have been spent on e.g. ramen.

That said, you clearly recognize all those things. HEARD is definitely the way to go here, because even if your jokes are hilarious this is not usually a situation where humor will help, and the end goal is a mutually-agreeable solution.

The other hard trick is knowing when people are attempting to manipulate you through anger, which is a sadly common tactic. That's where things like logging homework immediately come in--knowing you're right and being able to provide corroborative evidence makes it much easier to calmly establish where you stand.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:13 PM on November 13, 2018 [7 favorites]

I'm not in customer service, but I'm often in the position of telling people bad news. Never, ever joke about it. When people are angry or resentful, even if it's for totally unrelated reasons, a joke comes across as uncaring. I once had someone blow up at me after I said something as innocuous as "Knock on wood" -- to him, that was me being superstitious and unscientific and idiotic. The distressed mind hears things differently from the calm mind.

Naming their frustration can be really helpful in de-escalating the situation. Lyn Never's phrasing is really good, except I'd caution away from "It's going to be ok" because again, to a distressed person that can come across as minimizing. When in doubt, "This must be really frustrating for you," and "Let's figure out what to do next" are good phrases to have in your back pocket.
posted by basalganglia at 4:23 PM on November 13, 2018 [7 favorites]

My god, don't make a joke about it!

Your response, "Don't worry, we'll work it out. I'm on your side here."
posted by Toddles at 5:22 PM on November 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

I have some experience dealing with students...

A student in this kind of situation (missing work) is probably feeling one the following:

* They think they've been screwed over, if they think it's your mistake

* They're freaked out about what kind of consequences this will have, and that's turning into anger

I mean, there is a third option - that they're putting it on and hoping to get out of turning an assignment in late - but for the moment assume honesty.

You can defuse both by positioning yourself as being on the student's side. You're going to find out what happened and what you can do about it, together. This doesn't mean breaking policy - it means finding solutions within the policy.

Things you shouldn't do:

* Don't say "I'm sorry if I lost it"; the student will hear "I'm sorry that I lost it". Keep to what you know happened. If you find out later that you lost it, then maybe - but only after you're sure.

* Don't joke! This is a serious situation for the student and you don't want to seem like you're trivializing it. You want to defuse with kind practicality, rather than humor.

* Don't make promises you can't keep, and this includes saying "it'll be ok" if you don't know yet what the consequences for the student would be.

Since this kind of situation makes you anxious, and it's hard to react well when you're anxious, it might be worth practicing some generic "kind, practical problem solver" type of phrases. Some good ones have already been suggested. It can really help to have a mental script for these kinds of things.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:45 PM on November 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

Sometimes when I'm dealing with a difficult customer, I find that things go much smoother if I turn the empathy way up. Like, yeah that's more emotional labor than I feel my job should ideally entail, but shit is already pretty non-ideal both in general and also in the specific instance of having to interact with an irritable customer. Sometimes you just have to throw away the script and get real with someone.

I've had customers who are in obvious physical pain. I've had customers who are under obvious financial strain. I've had customers who are melting down with grief over the loss of a loved one. In these cases and others things have gone much more smoothly after I slowed down, took a moment to assess the situation from the customer's point of view, and just acknowledged that this really sucks, but we'll get through it, and that I was going to do my best by them insofar as my role allows. It is crazy out there and people are stressed. You're stressed; we all are. When you get a student like this, you have to deal with them for what, an hour max? You can give someone an hour of just being patient and trying to find a way to make things work and solve their problem.

We're not in this just to do the easy ones; when you take the job, you take the tough ones too. It applies to roofs, and it applies to people.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:00 PM on November 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think a joke can be helpful after things are resolved and you've got the replacement copy. THEN you can break the tension by saying, "Whew, at least the hamster who runs the exhaust fan in our server didn't eat it this time. When his blood sugar gets low, he just starts snackin' on the essays left and right" or whatever ACTUAL joke you decide on.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:33 PM on November 13, 2018

One thing for sure, and it's not been mentioned at all that I can see in any of these responses:
There is a line that cannot be crossed.
If that line is crossed it is immediate frost time.

I'm not certain where the line is, but you do.

You are dealing with 17-19 year old frightened, angry children.
They might be used to getting their way by intimidation.
If they break boundaries -- staring you dead in the eye, ranting, raging -- they are over the line.

You are not a punching bag.
You have the responsibility to yourself to be safe.
No job is worth being violated.

Be safe.
posted by dancestoblue at 9:55 PM on November 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

I’m late to the party, but I wanted to emphasize that you likely have a counseling center at your school. These students sound like they’re under an enormous amount of stress (cf the outsized reaction to a bit of bad news) and they likely could benefit from the direct resources that your CC provides. You might make a mild announcement at the beginning of the next class, included with the health center as a reminder to take care of themselves physically and academic resources to take care of themselves academically.

Furthermore, your counseling center can probably help you develop appropriate responses to angry students. Reach out to them for a one on one, or they might organize a general training of the problem is more pervasive than just with you.

Good luck.
posted by Liesl at 4:48 AM on November 14, 2018

Absolutely never joke. That may signal to the other person that their source of distress is a moment of enjoyment for you and that you don't feel sympathy for their situation. That will only make matters worse.
posted by Amy NM at 5:13 AM on November 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Honestly, fix the issue with papers. Have a large folder for them, keep them in that folder except the one you're grading. Consider requiring students to submit them via school email. If I had reason to think a teacher lost my work, I'd be angry with good reason.

Defuse anger by listening carefully, respecting the students' concern, and taking effective action.
posted by theora55 at 5:38 AM on November 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

I really hope this doesn't come off as dismissive, but I really am careful with student papers (e.g. I do the folder thing). For reasons having to do with limited computer access an electronic submission doesn't work very well. On the occasional instance where papers get lost (this being I don't have it, a student says they turn it in) I take immediate steps to say "Can you get me another copy" and "sorry"

I do think that the "sorry" bit got buried because the student was coming at me at eleven and I tensed up. Which is where the empathy bit you all have been talking about is important! Thanks!
posted by angrycat at 6:19 AM on November 14, 2018

On the occasional instance where papers get lost (this being I don't have it, a student says they turn it in)

If this has happened more than once, it would be a good idea to log the papers as you collect them. You'll have to take a couple more minutes of class time, but if you write the student's name on a log sheet when they hand you your paper, you will better be able to say that the paper was not turned in. I suspect that some of your anxiety is due to you second-guessing yourself and wondering if you made a big mistake. Knowing your position might help you deal with these situations.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:18 AM on November 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Angrycat, that probably came off a bit accusing, so we're square. In that case, I would just say I do not have a paper from you. You may re-submit it without penalty. The realization that they *could* be penalized, and the offer of no penalty should keep things chill.

When I was in college, the college mail room mis-delivered a final paper the end of the semester that I was graduating. Much consternation, and this was before computers and cheap photocopies, so no copy. It was found, I graduated, but I appreciate that you give students leeway. Most faculty assume the student just wanted more time.
posted by theora55 at 3:27 PM on November 14, 2018

I recommend a read of Suzette Haden Elgin's The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, and possibly a read of her The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense At Work-- the great thing about these is that when she says gentle art, she means it, and her preferred way of handling altercations is to have already wrangled the situation so that one does not arise. Really, really effective communication strategies which take into account things like any power differentials that may exist between you and the other person; also just really well-written, engaging, and memorable.
posted by Rush-That-Speaks at 6:53 PM on November 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

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