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Conflict Management Skills for Dealing with Aggressive Customers

Discover step-by-step strategies to defuse aggression in customer interactions. Learn from real-world examples and empower your team.

Conflict Management Skills for Dealing with Aggressive Customers
Photo by Headway / Unsplash

The ability to resolve conflicts is an important life skill. Clearhead data shows most people look to avoid conflict, which often leads to things getting worse before they get better.

Overwhelmingly, the best thing to do when faced with a conflict is to try to find a resolution.

This article focuses on an example of dealing with an angry customer, but the tools and techniques outlined are relevant for any interpersonal conflict, either at work or at home.

One of the most challenging aspects of being in a customer-facing role is dealing with aggressive customers. Often, it means bearing the brunt of someone’s frustration over something that had nothing to do with you.

Conversations can be heated and emotional, and it can be difficult to figure out a solution that is suitable for both the business and the customer. These instances may be rare, but they can also have a lasting effect if they weigh on your mind afterwards.

Conflict resolution is a key skill for staff that deal with customers, both in resolving issues and doing it in a way that doesn’t impact your mental health.

This is a challenge, but it can also be a rewarding part of your job when you can do it well. It takes skill to help a customer go from being frustrated to being satisfied with an outcome, while also serving the businesses best interests. If you can do it, you should take pride in that.

These are the four key steps when dealing with aggressive customers.

1. Managing your own emotion

When customers are angry or upset, it can be a natural reaction to match that emotion with your own. However, this only tends to escalate a conflict.

“Once one person gets heated up, it’s easy to mirror that behaviour and before you know it, you have two people swinging punches,” says Amy Gallo, the author of HBR’s Guide To Managing Conflict at Work.

In order to remain calm, remember not to take anything personally. If a customer is critical, it’s not likely to be focused on you - at least at the very beginning - so do your best not to get offended.

Your role is to find a resolution, and staying calm gives you the best chance of doing that. It’s not about who was right or wrong in any situation, so focus on finding an outcome and resist the temptation to get emotional.

  • Focus on your breathing. Breathe slowly and deliberately. The Clearhead Deep Breathing tool can help you to practise mindfulness while simultaneously activating your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). When you activate your PNS, it sends a signal to your brain to say that you're safe and don't need to use the fight, flight, or freeze response. This allows you to think more clearly.
  • Listen. This might sound obvious, but often in a conflict people think about what they will respond with instead of listening to what the other person is saying. Use our Active Listening tool to practise this skill in conflict management. Active listening is about really paying attention to what someone else is saying, and seeking to understand rather than be understood.
  • Once you’ve given the customer the space to share their concern, paraphrase what you believe they’ve said in your own words. It helps you to focus on what the problem is, and it clarifies any assumptions or misunderstandings you (or the customer) may have.
  • Take a deep breath and pause before responding, especially if it’s a heated conversation that is dragging on. This helps to slow the conversation down, temper your emotions, and prevent you from saying something in the heat of the moment that you later regret.
  • Come back with a resolution later if you need to. You should never feel you have to solve the conflict on the spot. Sometimes going away to investigate further leads to a better resolution because you de-escalate the situation and can talk through your approach with others.

2. De-escalate customer conflict with communication

Your communication style is a key tool in de-escalating an aggressive customer. The way you speak with them matters just as much as the actual words you use. You can check out Clearhead’s Communication Skills series for dealing with angry customers for more assistance on how to do this well.

Your body language matters too. If you’re speaking to them in person, show you’re being attentive by looking them in the eye. Take notes if you feel you need to - you can even explain that you’re writing down what they’re saying so you don’t miss anything important. These are critical non-verbal cues that show the customer they’re being listened to.

Sometimes there will be an element of the customer needing to vent. In these instances, they can feel calmer after they’ve explained their situation. If you sense they’re annoyed initially, give them space to say what they need to say before responding. This helps them to feel heard, and it also means you have all the facts from the outset.

In some situations, asking another coworker or making a phone call to learn more about the issue can de-escalate the tension, as the customer can see you are involving other people to try and improve the situation.

If it’s applicable, ask your manager or another staff member to assist during heated situations. They may be able to add weight to what you’ve already told the customer or give a second opinion.

3. Harness the power of empathy

Empathy is a key tool in conflict management. With empathy, you can understand the customer’s situation, recognise where their frustration comes from and identify satisfactory outcomes from their perspective as well as your own.

Empathy is hard-wired into our brains. We have mirror neurons that help us understand other people’s actions, experiences and emotions by automatically simulating a brain state that matches what we’re observing from them.

This can be a double-edged sword however; the main thing we want to ensure is that we don't mirror the customer’s aggressive behaviour, and instead use empathy to understand the pain they’re feeling and recognise our role in removing that pain by resolving their problem.

Here are some practical steps you can take to show empathy:

  • Show you care. Say things like “I’m frustrated about this too,” and “Let’s get this resolved as quickly as we can.”
  • Own your part. Apologise for any mistakes you or the business have made and recognise how your company’s approach has led to their situation. Once you’ve resolved their issue, you can even discuss how you might be able to improve your processes so this doesn’t happen again.
  • Get more information if you need it. If they say something you didn’t know about, or if you have questions that need to be answered by someone else, take the time to find everything out. That may mean going away and coming back to them later.
  • Share the context. By explaining why certain policies are in place, you can give customers perspective on what’s led to their frustration. This level of transparency helps to build trust, because without this context, customers can feel like things are set up to catch them out.

These examples all help to show the customer that you are committed to finding a solution together. Customer complaints can easily go wrong when they feel you’re arguing against them. Empathy gives you common ground that helps the customer to feel like you are on the same team.

4. Look after your own mental health

Often when talking about mental health, we use the aeroplane analogy: that it’s best to put on your own life jacket before helping with someone else’s.

What that means is, you’re more able to help other people if you’re in a good mental state yourself first.

Any conflict can impact someone’s mental health, and this needs to be acknowledged and accounted for. In a work setting, systems should allow staff the space to prioritise their mental health so customer conflicts don’t impact their overall wellness.

There are two key elements to doing this:

  • Immediately after a conflict
  • Proactively

Immediately after a conflict

Take a break as soon as you’ve finished dealing with an aggressive customer. These can be stressful conversations and it’s always best to have some space to re-centre yourself before getting on with the next thing.

After the stress or danger is gone, the effect of adrenaline and cortisol released in anticipation of a threat (i.e. the aggressive customer) can last up to an hour, which means you’re in a heightened state.

Try to relax by listening to one of Clearhead’s Mindful Listening tracks. This will help your body to process the adrenaline rush and prevent you from getting into a potential new fight with a coworker or another customer.

Many people dwell on an argument long after it’s happened, even to the point of creating anxiety that it may happen again. The best thing you can do is take the time to process what has just occurred.

Journaling is a healthy way of reflecting on conflicts. You can journal in a notebook, or with Clearhead’s Mood Journaling tool, which uses AI to help you reframe negative situations into a positive learning experience.

By reflecting on the conflict soon after, you can take the venom out of it. It helps to:

  • Recognise the things you did well
  • Understand how you might approach it differently next time
  • Feel reassured that you did a good job
  • See if there are processes that can be improved to prevent future issues
  • Give you confidence that you can handle tricky customer situations
  • Put a system in place so you know which other staff members you can turn to for help in future

In customer service teams, it’s a good idea to have a culture of team learning whenever there’s a notable or systemic customer issue. Before you do this, managers should make sure the staff member that dealt with a customer conflict is comfortable with the team discussing what happened.

If this is a common occurrence, Clearhead can facilitate regular professional supervision sessions to debrief in a group setting with one of our clinical networks.

These conversations can be fantastic learning opportunities and the chance to share precedents so all team members know what to do in certain situations.

Proactive mental health

If you’re not in a good headspace, it’s difficult to assist an angry customer. You’re likely to be more impatient and have less empathy for their situation, which limits your effectiveness.

But by building a good base of self-awareness and self care that’s centred around routines and preventive techniques, you’ll be more resilient and more able to help customers.

Proactive mental fitness helps you feel better, even when you’re not having any issues. Many people wait until they reach crisis point before prioritising their mental health. However, being proactive means you avoid those low points and ultimately improve your overall outlook on life.

If you’re going through a tough time, don’t suffer alone. Instead, book funded therapy through Clearhead to get support from a professional specialising in your specific issue. If your workplace uses Clearhead as an EAP, this therapy is paid for

Proactive wellness is a key trait of high performers, as discussed in our webinar with Dr. Nate Zinsser. He outlines two great ways of supporting your mental health proactively:

  1. Practise gratitude, even when it's hard to find something to be grateful for. Our Gratitude tool can guide you through this process.
  2. Practise positive affirmation if you feel you didn’t handle a situation well. This helps to ensure you don’t let perceived failures knock your confidence. Get started with Clearhead’s Positive Affirmation resource.

Clearhead is a fantastic tool to build resilience and proactively improve your mental health. With a variety of wellness tools and 1000+ therapists available, Clearhead is a modern EAP that does much more than simply offer counselling for those in a crisis.

It allows all staff the chance to prioritise self care and learn tools and techniques that enable you to thrive, both at work and in your personal life.

Find out more about how Clearhead can support mental health and wellbeing in your workplace if your company doesn't already have us on board.

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