Conflict comes with the territory of retail and loss prevention, but it doesn’t need to escalate into something serious if you know how to handle the situation well. Tony Paixão is a certified forensic interviewer, instructor and consultant, who spoke at the Global Retail Crime Summit about understanding the evolution of anger. He gave some tips on how to mitigate and minimize situations based on some rules of conflict resolution.
Prepare for the situation
Any sort of conflict easily becomes highly personal because people generally react to problems emotionally, rather than logically. Therefore, not making a situation worse involves a lot of situational and self awareness, as well as self-control.
Tony gives the example of a manager of a shop who gets notified about a customer who is being difficult towards a cashier. When they receive this call, their adrenaline may start rushing and if they go to meet the customer in this state, they’re going to take with them a heightened sense of frustration.
“This comes down to planning and preparation before you get on the scene, so that you can be in the right mental space to actually make a positive impact versus making things worse”
Understand where the anger comes from
Often anger comes out of unmet expectations. There are many real-life examples of this through Covid-19 where people go to the supermarket, but are refused entry because they’re not wearing a face mask. Their expectation of being able to go shopping has not been met in this situation and they may lash out in frustration.
“Our goal is to make sure that we are understanding, we’re putting ourselves in an empathetic state of mind. Whether we agree with them or we don’t, that’s kind of irrelevant because if you don’t agree with them, that’s likely going to escalate the problem,” Tony says.
This doesn’t mean bending the rules to meet every customer’s expectations, though. It just means being able to show empathy and to listen, rather than meeting the situation with anger. This is especially important when the customer’s expectations are unrealistic since those situations are likely to get out of control much faster than others.
Addressing child-like behavior
Someone who is hell-bent on getting their own way is likely to revert to child-like behavior when confronted with resistance.
For example, in the shopping example above, the customer who is stopped from entering the store may react in a way that is highly emotional and illogical. This behavior may trigger a parent-like response from the supermarket staff, which will only deteriorate the situation.
Tony says the key thing here is to not treat the other person like a child:
“Our goal is to treat them as though they are a full adult and make sure we’re handling and addressing their situation in a way that is respectful to their problem.”
An example of how this might work in practice is, instead of telling the customer to “stop that immediately”, you could say, “I’m sorry to bother you, but could you please stop doing that?” The logic here is straightforward: treat someone like an adult and they’re more likely to respond like an adult.
Be aware of shift-blaming and denying responsibility
Treating people like adults is core to situations where they don’t accept the reality of the situation and try to place blame or responsibility on someone, or something, else. People don’t like to be wrong and this is where this sort of behavior stems from.
The example Tony gives here is that of a customer who’s denied entry into a supermarket because he doesn’t have a face mask and the manager of the store offers to take his shopping list and do the shopping for him. The customer’s response is to find excuses to not accept the manager’s offer.
In these situations, Tony recommends maintaining the tone of the conversation. This means if someone is getting frustrated and their anger levels are rising, you need to keep your cool and act rationally with the intention of bringing them back to your level.
Don’t let ego get in the way
Whether this is your own ego or the ego of the other person, it’s important to again, not feed into child-like behaviors.
The more consistently someone has voiced their argument, the harder it is for them to backpedal and accept they may be wrong. So don’t let it get to that stage. Adopt a cooperative and empathetic mindset from the start. If you make the other person feel comfortable and show you’re actually listening to them - even if you stand at opposing ends of the situation - then they’re going to feel less vulnerable and will be less likely to react irrationally.
Similarly, exercise your emotional intelligence by putting aside your own judgments and biases. Even if you think someone is acting in a ridiculous or unfair way, don’t let that show.
Know the difference between responding and reacting
If someone punches you in the face in public, what do you do? If your answer is, “I’d punch them back”, then you’re reacting, which is what we don’t want to do. Instead of punching them back, step back and ask yourself: why did they punch me?
Tony acknowledges that taking a step back when affronted isn’t something that most people can do naturally. But being able to mentally remove yourself from the situation and re-engage from a logical perspective is a necessary response to avoid escalating a situation.
Overall, the point of conflict de-escalation can be summarized into one sentence:
“Conflict is inevitable, combat is optional”.
While it’s impossible to not have conflict in our lives, it’s how we move on from it that matters the most. Recognizing behavior patterns when it comes to conflict and angry customers makes these difficult situations easier to approach and handle.
Top 10 tips for de-escalation
Tony briefly mentions 10 tips from the Crisis Prevention Institute for de-escalation during times of high stress. You can read more about them here. In short, they are:
- Be empathetic and non-judgmental
- Respect personal space
- Use non-threatening non-verbals
- Keep your emotional brain in check by remaining calm, rational and professional
- Focus on feelings and understanding how the other person is truly feeling
- Ignore questions that challenge your authority
- Set limits by offering respectful and simple choices
- Choose wisely what you insist upon and which rules are negotiable
- Allow silence for reflection
- Allow time for decisions