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FEATURE OF THE WEEK: The POWER over anger – A focus on listening and language can help diffuse confrontations

It can be a manager's or dispatcher's worst nightmare: A driver storms into the office, the veins bulging from...


It can be a manager’s or dispatcher’s worst nightmare: A driver storms into the office, the veins bulging from his neck, and screams coming from the top of his lungs. He’s mad. Really mad. And you’re the focus of the anger.

Some employees will always have shorter fuses than others, admits Glen Dowden of St. John’s Nfld., a dispatcher with East Can Transport Services and the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association’s 2003 Dispatcher of the Year. And each person will be triggered by specific issues.

But your approach to addressing the anger is crucial to diffuse any confrontation.

“You want to really listen to them and get their side of the story,” Dowden says. “None of the problems are always the same ? If you offer them a solution to their problem, pretty soon it’ll go smooth.”

Mediation Training Institute Canada president Nancy Love agrees. “Courage and curiosity are the two keys [to addressing the issue],” she says. “You have to be genuinely curious, because if you’re pretending you’re curious, they got you.”

But how can you have a rational discussion with someone who’s so angry?

“The immediate reaction, especially if there’s anger, is to acknowledge it,” Love says. “People need to feel acknowledged before they calm down themselves.”

An approach known as “active listening” will be the most successful way to diffuse the situation, and her company outlines the approach with an acronym called POWER:

* Paraphrase – “Say back to them what you heard, so they know you’re listening,” Love says. 

* Open questions – Ask the questions that will lead to a discussion about what really happened, and identify the source of the anger. “You don’t need to know what’s bothering them. You need to know what’s important to them about it.”

* Wait – “Let them vent,” Loves adds. “They’re not going to be psychologically prepared to settle anything [before that].”

* Empathize – Upset employees want to know that you realize how important an issue is to them. And a response like, “You seem really upset about this. Help me understand what’s upsetting you,” will help focus on the problems.

* Re-frame – Take anything negative and move it to a positive. Someone complaining about waiting times at a customer’s dock, for example, could be told, “So it’s important for you to have your truck on the road and not have to wait.”

“It just earns you a hearing,” Love says of the approach, which requires gentle, honest, open and specific discussions. “They will listen to you because you’ve earned that hearing.”

It’s also important not to be drawn into a confrontation. If someone accuses you of “always” doing something, it’s important to reply with a question like, “When you say ‘always’, what do you mean by that?” rather than confronting them with a “When did I do that?”

According to the Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council’s Dispatcher Interpersonal Skills Course, a collaborative approach that looks for a “win-win” solution for everyone involved in a conflict will offer the best long-term results.

That means considering the feelings of the other party, and defining the root cause of the problem.

“Is the conflict over misunderstood information? Are values and beliefs being attacked? Is it really a power issue? What is the root cause of the problem?” the training material asks. “Often we keep the discussion going until the root causes have been determined. Determine the impact of the behavior ? describe how the behavior affects you.”

Larger problems also need to be broken down into smaller issues that can be addressed.

Of course, if an employee is venting with every return visit, they need to be challenged, Love says, taking on the role of a supervisor in that position, saying, “You know, what I’ve noticed is that when you come in here, which is pretty regularly, you’re really loaded for bear, and I’m wondering what it’s about.”

But ultimately, if you’re in the wrong, offer a genuine apology. Nothing will disarm an angry person better than that, she says.

The Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council (CTHRC) is an incorporated non-profit organization with a volunteer Board of Directors that is representative of stakeholders from the Canadian trucking industry. With the conviction that the best human resources skills and practices are essential to the attainment of excellence by the Canadian trucking industry, the mission of the Council is “to assist the Canadian trucking industry to recruit, train and retain the human resources needed to meet current and long-term requirements”. For more information, go to www.cthrc.com.


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