A customer, trying to return an item, is told by the store employee: “You opened it. It must be unopened, or we can’t accept it for a return. That’s our policy.”
The customer fires back: “You people make me crazy! Your “customer service” is a joke! I demand to speak with the manager!”
What’s the difference between a conversation and a confrontation? Words. Words matter. Provocative words, thrown like lit matches, ignite fiery confrontations. The employee says she was just following the rules. The customer feels shut off and frustrated. And they’re off to the Communication Breakdown races.
Non-verbal behaviors and tone of voice play major roles in the communication process. But any time a word or two evokes the mental image of the wagging, scolding finger of a parent or third grade teacher, chances are good that it will trigger a defensive response by the recipient. “You have to!” leads to “I do not!”. These emotional trigger words or phrases can be categorized as “fightin’ words”. Some examples include: have to, must, do it, your fault, wrong, bad, irresponsible, incapable and the absolutes of never and always. “You have to fill out the correct forms.” “You never do anything right!” You always screw up!” The fightin’ words are often combined with “you”, adding to the listener’s sense of being personally attacked. A customer may be mad at the company, but the employee takes the word “you” personally and responds accordingly. You may be trying to help an employee learn and develop from mistakes, but if your words are too negative, the employee shuts down.
Negative language leads to customer service complaints, lost business, disgruntled employees, increased turnover, mistrust and workplace silos. These very real consequences cost businesses money and lost talent. And, according to Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman, negative words can be bad for your health. In their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, the authors note that “hostile language can disrupt specific genes that play a key part in the production of neurochemicals that protect us from stress.” Conversely, positive words can alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning. They propel the motivational centers of the brain into action, according to the authors, and build resiliency.
It starts by making better word choices. Here are some concrete things you can do:
- Change your perspective. Instead of thinking about what policy to cite to explain why you can’t do something, think about how you can. It may be something as simple as saying “I’m sorry, I’m not authorized to do this, but let me see if I can get someone who may be able to help.” If your attitude is about looking for a positive outcome for the other person, they will see you as a collaborator instead of an antagonist.
- Listen to understand, not to reply. Hear the other person out. You may be missing some key information that would alter your perspective.
- Stop using “you”. Turn around “you have to (or I won’t)” to “I need you to (so I can)” and get the same results without creating a confrontation. The second version tells the other person you are trying to help, not trying to justify saying no.
- Change from negative to positive phrasing.
Until you get that information to me, I can’t finish the project.
VS Once you get that information to me, I can finish the project.
I’m unable to help you.
VS Let’s see how we can help you.
I can’t get to this until Friday.
VS I can get this to you by Friday.
It takes some thought and practice to make changes, but the benefits are worth the effort.
Effective communication results when both parties understand each other and work collaboratively towards a common goal. Positive words reduce stress, and make us smarter and happier.
May you have a wonderful day, every day of the year!