With everybody multitasking, listening is an even more critical skill than ever before. Mistakes are piling up like mountains. For example, I ordered a sofa sectional in November. I’ve had three deliveries since then: 1) the chaise and loveseat portion of the sectional were reversed, 2) they delivered the correct chaise, but someone else’s loveseat, 3) they delivered another chaise but the wrong side, still no loveseat portion. I have had to cancel a holiday party, rearrange client appointments to be home for delivery, and been soundly disappointed three times.

And on the other end of this listening-magedon think of the time, people, dollars for materials, trucking and salaries involved, and I’ve still to receive what I ordered very clearly and consistently (sofa sectional with my right arm on the chaise portion and my left arm on the loveseat portion) four months earlier. So, what do you do if you’re on the receiving end of anger? If someone storms into your office ranting and raving, the most important thing you can do for the immediate moment is to keep breathing, remain as calm as you can and follow the listening techniques below.

Most people operate with four basic intentions. They move in and out of them everyday — even several times a day. They either want to get something right, to get something done, to get along in a situation or to be appreciated in a situation. When those intentions are thwarted — or even perceived as thwarted — people tend to become either more passive or more aggressive in their behavior. We may have the intention to invest in the right stocks to make money (get it right), or to finish filling out forms correctly (get it done), or be part of an investment buying club without agreeing with every club decision (to get along) or perhaps I sponsored you at the club as a speaker and feel you didn’t properly thank me (to get appreciation).

Now that you’re armed with this powerful information on intentions, listening actively to understand becomes critical to helping people move from either more passive or more aggressive behavior — to assertive behavior and constructive results. Below is the most integrity-filled way I’ve ever uncovered to achieve credibility and resolution in difficult situations.

STEP 1: ACTIVE LISTENING: While your client is talking, venting, blowing off steam, whining, complaining, unloading, talking about irrelevant or misleading things, providing you with detail that you have no use for, you need to behave as if what they’re saying makes perfect sense to you — even when it doesn’t. Don’t distract your angry client with puzzled looks, interruptions or statements of disagreement. Instead, nod your head in agreement, make sounds of understanding like “Uh-huh”, “Oh”, and “Hmmmm”. Everything about you, from your body posture to volume, must give the impression that you hear and understand.

STEP 2: BEGIN TO REPEAT WHAT THEY SAID TO YOU: When your client begins to repeat (him)herself, you need to become actively involved. He or she wants feedback from you. Don’t rephrase or translate what they’ve said by changing their words with statements like, “in other words”, or ”so, what you’re really trying to say” because words are symbols for experience. The word-symbols a person chooses to express their experience have unique meaning to them. If you change their words, they may believe that you don’t understand. And, don’t repeat everything either. How much you do depends on the situation you’re in. And, here’s an important tip: this step is particularly important when dealing with an angry client over the phone. Over the phone, the client has only the sound of your voice and the words you use to determine if they’ve been listened to and understood.

STEP 3: CLARIFY. After Step 2, you can begin to gather information about the meaning of their communication. Now, it’s okay to look confused, and become genuinely, sincerely curious as you ask some clarifying questions. They are the open-ended questions we’ve discussed before and begin with WHO, WHAT, WHY, WHEN, WHERE, HOW. “Which stock are you talking about?” “How did it happen?” “When did it happen?” “What are you referring to?” “Where did it happen?” “Who was involved?” After you’ve gathered more information, you must begin to explore why they’re saying what they’re saying and what criteria they’re hoping to satisfy by their behavior — to get something done, to get something right, to get along, or to be appreciated.

STEP 4: SUMMARIZE WHAT YOU’VE HEARD. Now summarize to make sure that both you and your client have the experience that you really do understand. Start by saying, “So then, if I understand you correctly, this is the problem, this is who it involved, and this is when it happened, where it happened and how it happened?” When you do this two very important things happen: 1) if you missed something, they can fill in the details; and 2) you’ve demonstrated, one more time, that you’re making a genuine effort to fully understand. This increases the likelihood of gaining their cooperation in changing the direction of their behavior down the line and finding a constructive resolution.

STEP 5: CONFIRM. Finally, this last step, is perhaps the most important and most integrity-filled step to do. If you’ve fully and completely listened to your client, rather than assuming anything, make sure that your client is satisfied that the problem has been fully voiced. Ask ”Do you believe I understand? “Is there anything else?” Once you’ve gained their assurance that they’ve fully voiced their complaint, you can proceed toward a strategy to resolve the problem. And, you’ll have gone a long way in building trust, credibility and relationship with your client.

So, to sum up, the results of your dealings with difficult clients is, in large part, up to you. Your goal is to actively listen to understand before taking any other action.
1. Listen to understand by blending visibly and audibly 2. Backtrack some of their own words
3. Clarify their meaning and intent
4. Summarize what you’ve heard
5. Confirm to find out if you got it right

Let’s see if my vendor gets it right this fourth time, if they get it done, or if I go along, or get any appreciation from the vendor involved. Think of the brand destruction that’s been created! Think of the bottom lined that’s been affected by just one order! What will it take to surmount it? I’ll keep you posted.

Ginny Pulos is president of Ginny Pulos Communications, Inc., a speech and media consultancy, and adjunct professor at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. She is an expert in presentation, storytelling and persuasion in corporate environments.r (www.ginnypulos.com). 

For more tips on speaking with confidence check our other blog posts. We welcome you to subscribe to our posts and the Ginny Pulos Communications Facebook page.

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This [Media Training] was an excellent overview of how to appear calm and professional and get our magazine’s message out. Excellent!