The psychology of conflict
According to Freud, the human mind is structured in such a way that we are in a near permanent state of internal conflict, a state eased only by either falling in love, becoming inebriated, or blindly following an autocratic leader! A healthy human has an internal critic, which constantly berates the person for their drives and urges and behaviour in general. So, conflict is close to being our natural state.
Transference and aggression
Also useful to know from the Freudian perspective is the idea of transference. Humans are constantly in search of security and control of their environment in order to feel safe and at rest. As we move through our environment, our mind works to relate it to what we already know. In other words, we seek or are inclined to see what we already know in any new situation. It makes us feel comfortable and less threatened. When we meet someone, our mind – often unconsciously – seeks to place this person: who are they like, who do they remind us of? Sometimes the person may remind us of someone we were fond of, and we will feel warmly towards this person, though we never met them before. Other times however, we may unconsciously recall someone we did not like, or someone who felt threatening to us, and our reaction may be altogether more abrasive or fearful.
It can be assumed that if someone who you have never met before is becoming aggressive, or acting in a way not normal for such an encounter, then they may be in transference. This can be ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. If we respond to their behaviour, then we can become caught up in counter-transference. A good example of where transference can occur is a training session. We are all gathered here as adults. But if we had a traditional classroom layout, with tables, biros and paper etc., and the trainer was to walk around the room – how does it feel? For some of us it can be very uncomfortable – we can start feeling annoyed, or threatened, or small. In fact, we might well be feeling 5 years old! And we might start acting like five year olds as well! Or, we might become highly subservient and obedient and try to please the ‘teacher’, who we might invest with unreasonable amounts of power and wisdom “oh please solve all our problems”! If the ‘teacher’ buys into the role, s/he is caught in counter-transference.
Another psychological dynamic at play can be what is referred to as projection, where feelings that are uncomfortable to us are ascribed to another person. If I walk into the library in a bad humour I may wonder why the person behind the counter is such a grump. As a result, I might be curt with them, and unmannerly. From their perspective, someone has just walked in and been unaccountably rude. They might decide “I’ll be damned if I’m going to put up with that”, and they may respond in an abrasive way. Hearing this, I’m convinced I was right. I might even feel superior and better, and the librarian is left stewing!
Knowledge is power
It is important for us all to accept that as diversity is such a feature of the human condition, then conflict and misunderstanding are inevitable between people. We perceive differently, we have different upbringings, different cultures, different orientations, different ways of learning and being in groups. Added to this, we have conflict on a nearly permanent basis in our own heads. So much conflict between people is not really personal, and is the result of misperception, misunderstanding, transference and projection. All this is simply by way of background knowledge – Fritz Perls said “awareness is curative” – it may ease things for us to realise how pervasive and natural conflict is. Furthermore, Michel Foucault maintains that “knowledge is synonymous with power”. This is important when we come to analyse our own actions, responses and choices.
Fight or flight?
How do you act when confronted with aggression? Do you respond in kind, pretend it’s not happening, retreat into your shell? All of these responses are natural, and we have an inclination to one of the three – fight, flight or freeze. There is nothing wrong with any of these – most of us would like to be better able to stand up for ourselves, but it is important not to berate ourselves for how we are. If we can honestly own our usual response, we know what we have to work with. Carl Rogers believed a lot of people made themselves ill because they invested too much time and effort pursuing an ideal self – the self they wanted to be, and to be seen as. We all have an ideal self – probably slim, athletic, confident, attractive, successful, competent and completely unfazed by rudeness or conflict. It doesn’t leave much room for our faults, the things we are embarrassed by, our perceived weaknesses, or aspects of ourselves we consider socially unexpected. Things that we suppress, and aspects of ourselves we do not listen to, can cause us problems. Studies show that people who are not listened to get ill – we all need to be listened to, to be understood, to feel validated. It is equally important that we listen to and respect ourselves. If we feel frightened in confrontation, it will do us no good to suppress this fact and may do us harm.
The power of listening
Listening is a very powerful device. If we listen to someone and they perceive they are being listened to, it can make them feel very good about themselves, which is also beneficial to us. However, sometimes a person is so caught up with their anger or hurt, they are not aware of the other, and even the most skilled listener will not benefit them or obviate their sense of aggravation.
What do we control?
The only behaviour we can ultimately control is our own. We cannot control the behaviour of anybody else. According to William Glasser we can choose our actions and behaviour, but we have no control over what another person does. We can only be responsible for those areas over which we have control – essentially, our own behaviour. In a conflict or difficult encounter, we cannot control the customer. We can and should account only for our own behaviour. It is not our fault if someone we have never met or interacted with feels aggrieved. We can feel empathy for the person, but we are not responsible for their pain. We may be able to help them, but their burdens are not ours. This is not callousness, it is good boundaries.
Why is he/she angry?
If a customer is familiar to us and we have interacted with them, then their sense of aggravation may come from a sense that they are not being heard, or that they are being dismissed or disrespected in some way. They may anticipate rejection. Deep down many humans struggle with feelings of inferiority, and if we act out of this, it can emerge as aggression and anger. If we offer respectful listening to a customer, and they are in a position to perceive this, then even if you are refusing them something they want, the encounter will probably not be negative.
Parent, Adult and Child
Other useful psychological insights can be gleaned from the work of Berne, who developed a system called Transactional Analysis. Berne proposed that human adults adopt three essential personality types when interacting with others, and that it is common for us to be in any one of these states depending on the situation. These three states he referred to as Parent, Adult and Child. It is useful to reflect on ourselves – what do we do when we are in each of these states, what kind of expressions do we use?
If a customer comes in and is very demanding, it is likely he/she is in their child state. They will be unreasonably demanding, as if they were having a tantrum. Are you familiar with such behaviour? You should be, as you will have seen it in customers, and in yourself! When someone acts childishly, we may feel the need to reprimand them, to tell them to pull themselves together. Our voice becomes peremptory, we hector them, and use plenty of “shoulds”, “musts” and “have to’s”. In short, we enter our parent state, and we set out to sort out this brazen pup! However, it seems to exacerbate the tantrum and the customer storms off or hangs up.
For some of us it can be more difficult if a customer adopts a superior or condescending tone and we find ourselves getting flustered and making mistakes and feel they are standing over us to correct/reprimand. We can find ourselves swept along in a pattern of behaviour we literally feel trapped in – a bewildering experience. We have responded to their parent state by entering our own child state – we feel small, judged, incompetent and under huge pressure.
Naturally, the ideal situation is for us to monitor our own behaviour and to develop an awareness of which state we are in at a given moment. Life is easier if we can maintain ourselves in the Adult state. It may help the other person to access their adult state, but even if it doesn’t, we stay above the fray and professional – we can be satisfied with our own behaviour. Even if we cannot stay in our Adult state, we have it as an aspiration. It is natural for everyone to have triggers that can cause them to enter their child or parent state. It is most useful to reflect on these triggers – awareness is curative, knowledge is synonymous with power. After much work on ourselves and reflection, we can (apparently) reach a stage where we can choose to be in our adult state (so I have been informed!).
Being fair to ourselves
The most important thing for any person is to be fair on themselves. We have an inner voice that can be mercilessly critical, and life will throw its own stresses and strains. The reality is that most of the time most people are doing the best they can. And some days it is just too hard and we are not as good as we would like. It is important to be forgiving of ourselves. After all, to quote Robocop, we are only human.
What helps to diffuse and manage a difficult situation
All the literature on this subject essentially agrees on a few key issues which are outlined below. I start on the wider issues and then move forward to the actual moments of contact.
- All agree that the more knowledge we have of ourselves, the better able we are to deal with scenarios of aggression. If we know we have a tendency to panic and an urge to flee, then we can pause, take a breath, and take control of our reactions. What we don’t know controls us. What we do know we can control and make choices about.
- A high level of self confidence tends to deter aggressors (though it can draw some types of aggression fuelled by envy). People with high confidence also recover faster from an aggressive event. If we learn to deal with aggression more effectively, it will boost confidence. Keeping fit and having a healthy lifestyle aids the development of confidence. It is best aided by acknowledging our qualities and achievements, and by accepting deserved compliments/praise. Many people are uncomfortable even with such ideas and may be snorting dismissively even when reading these statements!
- Remember, aggression and anger are considered to be secondary emotions triggered by fear, frustration, hurt – or feelings of inferiority.
- the anger is rarely personal – it may be directed at the organisation or just a over-reaction to life events. It is important to bear this in mind.
- it is considered very useful to separate the person from their behaviour. The aggressive customer’s behaviour is not how they actually are, and that the behaviour is transitory. Such an attitude makes it easier to be respectful, and feel less threatened.
- it is advised that you take a good breath (discreetly) at the beginning of an aggressive episode and keep breathing throughout the encounter – this helps diffuse tension.
- being yourself is important – genuineness always appeals.
- psychologists agree that any attention is better than none at all
- if an aggressor is met with courtesy and respectfulness they can find it disarming and the aggression can tone down quite quickly
- if the aggressor feels listened to they usually calm down – someone ‘sees’ them and is taking them seriously. We can indicate we are listening by use of body language – nodding, keeping eye contact etc., and by verbal signifiers, such as “I see”, and by feeding back your understanding of what the person wants – paraphrasing. Asking clarifying questions shows interest. Someone who feels listened to can feel understood and acknowledged.
- if you give your name and use their name, then the situation becomes personalised. It is much harder to maintain aggression in this circumstance as you are no longer an anonymous representative of an institution.
- to be on a similar physical footing where possible
- be on the ‘same side’ – come at things from the same angle when ‘showing’ something, or asking the customer to clarify that any written information is correct
- the most useful behaviour in a conflict scenario is assertive behaviour. Aggressive behaviour will likely fuel the situation, and passive behaviour could lead to you being ‘walked on’, which completely undermines confidence and leaves us in a state of perpetual fear.
- in the initial stages it is considered useful to match your pitch and tone of voice to the customers, and slowly slow it down – it can help bring down the other person.
- remember that while you are there to help the customer, his/her problems are not yours. This is vital for good boundaries and good health.
- keep communication channels open and keep the customer informed. If you are transferring a call and passing someone on to another person, explain what you are doing and why.
- know your limits in relation to your responsibilities – meet them and don’t go beyond them.
The above list is not exhaustive. It is an extended version of a technique developed to deal with ‘raging customers’ called PACR – Pause, Acknowledge, Clarify, Respond.
The most important thing: Self care
If you have handled an aggressive customer you are likely to feel affected and may be upset, angry or confused. Psychologists recommend a 7/11 breathing technique to lessen anxiety. It is very simple – you breathe in for seven seconds, and breathe out for eleven. It is physiologically known to lower the pulse rate. It is a good idea to get the support of a trusted and understanding colleague – it is a good idea to acknowledge aloud how you feel after the encounter.
Applying the learning
When we try to apply a technique, or a set of guidelines, we often feel awkward in the initial stages. Anyone who drives will probably remember the awkwardness of co-ordinating hands, feet and brain at the same time!
It is genuinely worth attempting to integrate the suggested techniques/tips outlined above, even if you practice just a few initially. It will very likely lead to more satisfying outcomes for you, which will build confidence in regards to future interactions.
By applying your techniques, you are taking control of issues that have bothered you – this is a positive, self-affirming action. It gets easier with time, until, like driving, it becomes second nature.