As a chamber professional, you probably spend a lot of time dealing with difficult people.
From disgruntled community members who somehow think you’re city hall to angry members whose businesses are floundering and think it can only be the chamber’s fault, you’ve likely held back many times.
While biting your tongue is sometimes the right course of action, at other times, you have to attack the situation (never the person) directly. Sometimes you simply must address them.
For those situations, we’ve compiled a list of proven tactics for helping chamber of commerce leadership and staff deal with those “extra special” people.
Never Do the Following When Dealing with Difficult People:
Before we get into what you should do, let’s go down a quick list of things that are hardly ever (we’ll say never) a good idea.
- DON’T: Lambaste them on social media. “Say it with diamonds, say it with mink, but never ever say it in ink.” Social media (and email) can and will be used against you. Whenever possible take the most heated part of the discussion offline. That also goes with don’t…
- DON’T: Write something sarcastic about someone online (or in email). Tone can’t be read. You might mean it as a joke. Or you have an intern posting and it’s a normal way they communicate with friends (here’s why interns shouldn’t be in charge of your chamber social accounts). Suddenly your sarcastic comment has become the talk of your community because people think you are serious. Wendy’s can pull this off, but the chamber brand usually has more gravitas.
- DON’T: Pretend
likenothing happened. I see this a lot. People take a beating publicly (on social media mainly) and they simply delete the comment without addressing it. If there’s the potential for that comment turning into a “Yeah, what was that about?” always address it in some manner even if that manner is posting “I’ll contact you directly.”
- DON’T: Accept all the blame or say you’re sorry when you didn’t do anything. In most arguments, there are two sides. Even if you’ve done something wrong, it’s rare all of it falls on you. If it does, own it. If not, don’t walk around internalizing everything and beating yourself up. Also, say you’re sorry when you really are and you made a mistake. Don’t say sorry when it’s something like, “Sorry, you missed the deadline.”
- DON’T: Blow off steam about it online. We all have to vent but be careful doing it on your own page. So many of us have hundreds of friends on Facebook. It’s impossible to know everyone’s connections. You might be telling friends of the awful day you had and one of your friends might be reading your stream while at dinner with the person you’re venting about. Awkward.
- DON’T: Assume you know the details. Sometimes the original issue isn’t with us and we get pulled into the mix. In those cases, we may have been briefed by another party as to what is going on. Don’t assume you know the issue and the emotions behind the difficult person’s actions. Unless it’s a customer service issue with a staff member, ask for their side of things. Also, don’t pretend to be a mind reader or attempt to finish people’s sentences. They can start to feel like you’re trying to put words in their mouths. It’s always best to listen when dealing with difficult people.
- DON’T: React on impulse. Have you ever heard the business advice that when you’re angry you should write an email stating exactly how you feel and then delete it? That’s not bad advice. Never react and then act. Give yourself time to process the situation before responding to it.
- DON’T: Forget about your chamber culture. Okay, so you can’t control what people think about you but you can control how you act. A lot of chambers are working toward building a particular kind of culture. You represent the chamber. If your actions are outside of the kind of culture you want to create, you are not doing yourself any favors. It’s important to keep in mind what your mission is and if you’re exemplifying it in public ways.
- DON’T: Demand that they calm down. Most of us don’t like emotional displays so we have a tendency to tell people to “calm down.” Don’t. This usually has the exact opposite effect. Instead, explain that you would like to help them but you want to make sure that the two of you can get the most benefit out of the conversation.
Now that you know what you should not do, let’s talk about the best way to handle and defuse situations with difficult people.
- DO: Involve them in conversation. Saying “I understand” often makes people feel like you don’t. Instead, ask them to tell you more so that you can understand and find a solution.
- DO: Own up to the parts you caused, if any. Excuses are never a problem solver. Don’t blame being new. If you caused the situation
ownit, apologize, and work toward a solution, clearly communicating what you’re doing and how. If it’s a long process, check in periodically with updates.
- DO: Respect personal space. Don’t get confrontational in your body language and don’t feel the need to inflate to meet their aggressive behavior. It’s a natural instinct to fight or flee and our body language can reflect those tendencies. Instead, keep a neutral stance without backing down or mirroring the aggressive behavior.
- DO: Keep a low and steady voice. When you raise your voice, the tone and agitation will escalate. People often have a hard time yelling at someone who is speaking in a soothing manner.
- DO: Solve the problem, not the argument. If there’s a problem to solve that you can help with, do so. But don’t try to convince the other person they are wrong and you are right. You’re wasting your breath.
- DO: Remember this isn’t personal. Okay, sometimes it really is. Sometimes the difficult person standing in front of you just doesn’t like you. Maybe it’s your “newfangled ways” of doing things or maybe you remind them of an ex, but a difficult situation is not a mark on you as a person. Try to remove your feelings of being attacked and practice empathy as much as possible. Sometimes, there just isn’t enough in the world. In those cases, focus on the problem and what you can do to fix it. Which brings us to…
- DO: If you can’t fix it, be up front. It’s hard
tobe honest about not being able to do anything, especially if that person is convinced you could do something but you choose not to. When I worked for the governor, I had a very irate grandmother call because her granddaughter didn’t make the high school cheer-leading squad. She was “very talented” and the decision was “all political.” Grandma was convinced that since she elected the governor, he should be able to rectify the situation. As comical as this might sound, and as far out of the gubernatorial jurisdiction as it was, this issue was very real for this woman. But I knew there was absolutely nothing the governor or any of his agencies could do. So I told her this was outside of the state jurisdiction and more of a school sport or club issue, listened to her string of expletives, and took the next call.
- DO: Set limits. It’s important to listen but at some point, the person generally begins circling back to the same complaints. When you reach that point start moving toward ways to uncover a solution. Don’t let them go on forever but don’t tell them you’ve heard enough too early either. Move the conversation in an effective direction. You have the pieces you need.
- DO: Give up the clown smile. In customer service, you’re often coached to meet every customer with a smile. If someone is coming to you with a problem, don’t keep grinning like the Joker. Smile where it might build camaraderie or further the relationship (aka where appropriate) but don’t think that a big smile will make them feel better. They’ll likely think you’re belittling them or have lost your mind.
One special note of caution:
Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right about the situation after you’ve tried everything, it might be time to reassess. If the person seems overly volatile like they could do something to harm themselves or harm others, consult a professional or law enforcement. Dealing with difficult people is one situation: protecting your self and your staff is quite another.
As a chamber professional, you can wear many hats but mental healthcare professional isn’t one of them. Sometimes the solution requires more than you can offer.
After you have successfully navigated a difficult situation, give yourself credit. It can take a lot out of you. Don’t internalize any bad treatment you may have received.
As upsetting as that situation might have been, know that you have another valuable experience under your belt; one that will inevitably help you in your role with the chamber.
Remember: if you’re not hearing complaints, you aren’t shaking things up!