Were you intrigued when you saw the title of this blog, How to Handle Upset People?  Have you recently had to deal with an upset customer or family member? If you can answer no to that question, good for you. If you answered yes, I think at one time or another we can all say we’ve encountered an upset person, and I’d like to share a strategy that I’m confident will help you learn how to better handle upset people that you’re for sure going to encounter in your life. For those who answered no, this strategy will help you in case you ever do. 

So how do we handle those people? What’s the best way to handle an upset person? Here’s the way we think is the best way to go about it.  

The Process: Steps 1 – 3 

Step 1: When they finish letting you have it, when they finish being upset, the best thing we can do, the number one tool we can use is to remain silent and don’t respond. Why do we do that? We know the person’s epinephrine hasn’t run its course, and we’re pretty sure they’re not finished. So that means they’re going to come at you again. And when they come again, we say Step 2 is to remain silent again. Why? We know the epinephrine probably is still not finished, and they’re going to continue to unload. And then, we say, you guessed it, Step 3 to this process is to remain silent still again.  

People always ask us why do you tell us to remain silent for so long and how do we know when not to remain silent. The way you’ll know when the need for your silence is over is the person’s intensity. The intensity of their anger and the length of their anger will both go down as the epinephrine runs its course through their system. As you see the intensity of their responses go down and the length of their responses get shorter, you’ll know it’s time now to give a response.  

If you give a response too soon, they’re going to cut you off because they’re not finished yet. I’m sure you’ve seen this before. You probably have even done it yourself. They’re going to cut you off and start verbalizing again anyway, and they probably wouldn’t even remember what you said. Since the rational part of their brain is still reduced, it’s very likely they wouldn’t even remember what your response was. So, the best way to save time and to save the relationship is to remain silent. 

Continuing the Process: Steps 4 – 7 

Once we see the intensity and time of their verbal outburst go down, we believe our first response is a thank you. Step 4 is to thank them for their feedback. Tell them it’s this kind of feedback that helps our organization improve. Say that it’s this kind of feedback that helps you as a leader.  

After that, we say the next step, Step 5, is to repeat back what they said to make sure that you completely understand what they said. Let me remind you there’s a good chance when you do that they’ll say they didn’t say that, even though you know they did. Don’t get mad. Don’t get offended. Don’t think they’re lying. They probably truly don’t remember saying some of what they said because, again, the rational part of their brain wasn’t functioning at its full capacity. They’re not necessarily lying. This is why large companies record customer service interactions because they can show the customer later they did say that. But, when you’re working with an upset person and when you repeat back what the person said and when they say they didn’t say that, then just ask them again, “Will you please say it again to be sure I understand?” 

Once you get a full understanding of their concern, Step 6 is to make a commitment to action and follow up on that commitment.  

In that follow-up, Step 7 is to fulfill the commitment and take action.  

When I say “commit to action and follow up” and “fulfill the commitment and take action,” here is the difference in those two steps. The first is that I make a commitment. For example, a customer is angry and the person they are angry with is not there. In that case, I say that I’ll call them back in twenty-four hours. Now, perhaps, the person will be back in tomorrow, but let’s say maybe they get caught somewhere and they have no cell phone coverage and they can’t get back to town. But within twenty-four hours, I still have to call the customer back and fulfill my commitment to call back when I said I would call back. 

Once we get all the information we need from the person who is upset, then we make the decision about what our commitment is and what action we are going to take to make it right.  

If You’re the One Who Is Wrong 

If we’re wrong, the best thing we can do is the Six-Step Apology. First, tell them we appreciate the phone call and say that this information is exactly how we improve. The next step is to admit that we were wrong in what we did. Step three is to say I’m sorry, and step four is to ask them if they would please forgive us because they’re a valuable customer to us. Next, tell them we give you permission to hold us accountable to always do what we say we will do, and, finally, step six is to ask them if there is anything else that we’ve ever done to you or your organization that we need to apologize for. 

I’ve always told employees in the companies I’ve owned or consulted with that if you make a mistake, at least make one that won’t put us out of business. But if you do make a mistake with a customer, I’ll teach you how to get a customer for life. It’s through this process that we can do that. 

This process not only works with an upset customer, but it also works with an upset child, an upset spouse, an upset employee, or an upset boss. Remain silent, silent, silent. Let the epinephrine run out. Thank them for this feedback. Repeat back. Be sure to get a good solution and then move forward on it.  

If the Customer Is the One Who Is Wrong 

If the customer is wrong, explain that they are wrong, and then work on a solution. For example, if they say something like, “I thought you said you were going to ship my purchase on the eighth of March because that’s what I asked you to do.” When you check that out, you see that you shipped it on the fourth of March, but they’re saying it got there late. That is not your fault because you actually shipped it earlier than you told them you would. However, You will still want to work it out and get the customer for life, but to do that may not take an apology. It may be a different source of working it out.  

If I started this next statement by saying “The customer is always _____,” I’m pretty sure you would finish the statement with the word right. If I said, “The customer always comes _____,” I’m pretty sure you would probably automatically answer the statement with the word first.  

Well, let me share the truth. Those comments make no sense to employees. They make no sense to co-workers because the customer is not always right. But, they are always the customer. Therefore, we will treat them with respect. And you know what? The customer doesn’t come first. Our employees come first. And if we put our employees first, guess who we don’t have to worry about. We don’t have to worry about the customer. The person outside my home does not come first. My wife comes first. And if she comes first, I don’t’ have to worry about the relationships outside the home. The other kids in the neighborhood don’t come first. The teacher doesn’t come first. My kids come first. But the teacher is always the teacher, and I’m going to treat them with honor and respect. But my kids are going to know they come first in my life. My spouse is going to know she comes first. My employees are going to know they come first because I know they’ll take care of the customers.  

Handling People Who Are Upset  

So now you have the chance to learn how to deal with angry people, including angry customers, by going through a process that can restore the relationship, keep a customer for life, keep a spouse for life, stay in relationship with children forever, and keep strong friendships. Consider using these seven steps when you have an angry person: 

  • Remain silent 
  • Remain silent 
  • Remain silent 
  • Thank them 
  • Repeat back 
  • Commit to action/follow up 
  • Fulfill the commitment/take action 

As transformational leaders, we need to know how to deal with angry people. Using this method will help you in your family, your organization, and with friends. It will also help you improve your leadership skills as you continue to grow in becoming the kind of transformational leader who impacts those around you in positive and constructive ways. 

Ford Taylor is a leadership strategist, keynote speaker, and the author of Relactional Leadership. As the Founder of Transformational Leadership, he is known as a man who can solve complex business issues, with straightforward practical solutions, while maintaining his focus on people.