Conflict De-Escalation Techniques and How to Use Them

Posted On: May 21, 2019
conflict de-escalation

The number one purpose of de-escalation techniques is to calm everyone down and come to a resolution. The second purpose is to avoid a potentially violent situation should someone get truly angry or act irrationally. For this article, we're going to identify seven conflict resolution techniques that you can use in many different situations—from dealing with customers to managing employees.

De-escalation techniques vary in different types of businesses.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all de-escalation technique. Every business needs to formulate its own strategies and techniques for handling issues and problems.

The bouncer solution.

In a bar, the conflict de-escalator technique is used is the bouncer. In a not so subtle way, the bouncer may just throw the customer out of the bar. Or the bouncer may try to break up a fight and separate the two antagonists until the police arrive.

The bouncer de-escalation technique seems to work reasonably well in this type of establishment. But does a small clothing store need a bouncer? Hopefully not (except during Black Friday sales). Instead, the owner or manager of the store may become personally involved to help calm the customer down and try to make the customer happy.

“Uh oh, very angry customer in aisle five.”

In a larger retail establishment, an employee who was not involved in the original situation may be suddenly confronted by an unhappy customer. The employee needs to know some basic de-escalation techniques to calm the customer and take care of their problem. In a more complicated situation or with a customer who is not acting reasonably, the employee should try to call a manager to come and handle the situation.

The employee argument.

Then, there's also conflict between employees. Not everyone who works together gets along. And when differences arise, this can become very apparent. Managers and supervisors need to know how to help their employees resolve their differences before a situation gets out of hand.

7 tips for de-escalating a customer conflict.

These seven tips can help you manage many situations. Your primary focus will be to de-escalate the conflict. If you don’t feel comfortable talking with the person, then say in a calm voice, “That’s something I don’t think I can help you with. Stay here and I’ll get a manager for you.”

1. Stay calm.

This is the first and maybe most important step. If someone is angry, it doesn’t help if you react and get angry, too. Take a deep breath and get ready to listen.

2. Don't blame anyone.

Don't blame the person by reciting company policies. Even worse, don't accuse someone with a "you should have…".  On the other hand, don't place blame. You don't know the whole story yet and you don’t want to put the wrong person at fault.

3. Get to the bottom of the problem.

Get the person to work with you by saying, "Let's try to work this out together.” Ask questions. Show that you are interested in their problem and want to help. You can even ask in a nice way, “Why are you angry?” Hear them out but don’t hesitate to cut through the back story – “my sister’s brother-in-law was having a party and invited the new neighbor who brought a friend…”

4. Admit mistakes.

As you are about to take responsibility for a problem, you may want to bring in a manager and explain the situation.  If you made a mistake, own up to it. In a customer service situation if what happened was not the way your company usually operates, admit it. Tell the customer you will try to remedy the mistake and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

5. Break the news gently.

If the person is at fault, break the news gently. Repeat what they told you was the problem. For an angry customer: “You said this shirt shrank when you washed it” - so they agree. Then, explain what happened – “This shirt is silk. It says here on the label to dry clean only. If you put it in the washer and dryer, it will shrink.”

6. Strive to fix the issue.

Sometimes the person just wants to vent. Sometimes they want a solution to their problem. If you have the power to help fix the issue, do your best to fix it. Maybe an employee is having trouble with a computer program that you know like the back of your hand.

This would be a good opportunity to suggest a training session—either one-on-one or for the whole company. Or at a retail store if you have the authority, make it easy for customers to get their money back. For instance, if the item costs less than $10, and the customer seems to have a legitimate problem, then give the customer their money back without making a big deal of it.

7. Thank the person!

Imagine their surprise when you thank someone for taking the time to bring an issue to your attention. People want to be heard and the easiest thing you can do is acknowledge their problems and their feelings.

Also, if possible get their feedback for how they would solve the problem and mention what kind of follow-up you plan to do. Following these seven steps shows the customer that you care about their business and want to do what’s right for the customer – not what’s best for the company’s bottom line.

What if the problem continues to escalate?

First, if you suspect the person may turn violent, don't put yourself in a situation where you may be harmed.

  1. If the person stays angry but rational, calmly ask for a cooling off period and then to agree to meet back in a few minutes.
  2. Keep control of your emotions. Someone has to be the adult. The customer may taunt you or call you names, just keep cool.
  3. Don’t yell at the person and never put your hands on someone.
  4. Keep your distance .
  5. Don’t act threatening or provoke the person.
  6. If you feel they will not calm down, and a manager is not present, calmly ask a fellow employee to call 911.
  7. If you are alone, keep your distance and calmly tell the person you are calling 911 to help solve the problem. If you feel threatened, look for an exit route or a safe place to run – for instance, a closet with a locking door.

If you stay calm, listen to the person, and work together on a reasonable solution, you can de-escalate most conflicts. Also, for more information on how to resolve conflict, check out our course on preventing workplace violence.

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