I love interviewing Rich Gallagher, an expert on customer service, because his advice applies not only to customers but to everyone else you cross paths with. Rich's new book is The Customer Service Survival Kit, but I think it's misnamed. The Relationship Survival Kit is more like it, in my opinion.
Here are my five favorite takeaways from our latest talk.
1. Don't suggest people calm down.
You want people to know you care about them, right? So why do you tell them to calm down when they're upset?
Has anything good ever come from that suggestion? I haven't met the person who likes being told how to feel. His reaction might feel appropriate to him. Even if you could prove it isn't, why would you?
Better, Rich says, to try to identify with his feelings. "Of course you're upset!" you could respond. "Who wouldn't be?" Forget for a moment you wouldn't be. Then you can continue the conversation honestly with something along the lines of, "Let's figure out a way to fix this..."
Argue with someone's feelings, and you'll have a different problem. Promise.
Rich says you can practice empathy with people you don't feel much empathy for. Just try it. They might respond in a way that inspires your empathy after all.
2. Don't presume you understand anything.
If someone tells you how she's feeling, say "I understand" at your own risk.
How can you possibly understand what someone else is going through? Even if you've had the same problem, you haven't brought her life experience to it -- so you're still in the dark.
3. Measure your apologies.
If someone you know is suffering, saying "I'm sorry" is almost never a bad move. Unless you've contributed to that suffering! In that case "I'm sorry" -- if offered too soon -- might feel like, "Can we get this over with? I messed up, I'm sorry, why can't you move on?"
I don't know about you, but I'm not on a mission to collect apologies. A lot of problems can't be solved. What I want most is the feeling that I'm not alone in my grief.
4. Treat criticism as information.
Criticism is a gift. It isn't good news or bad news.
It's just information.
Use it or don't use it -- but thank your lucky stars you're surrounded by people who tell you the truth.
5. Let the person who's hurting decide what will help.
I have a theory about why some of us get frustrated when others get upset.
We don't know what to do.
I stumbled on something that works wonders in those situations.
"What can I do?" is a magic question, really. It tells someone you're not only ready to help, but eager to know what would constitute help.
Some people think when the suffering is intense you shouldn't ask how to help -- you should just do it. Show up with a pan of lasagna, for example. I don't know about you, but the last thing I want to do when I'm feeling down is to eat lasagna -- or to add "return baking pan" to my to-do list.
The other night I felt crushed by the weight of several to-do lists. When I admitted that to my husband and daughter they both said it: "What can I do?" Much of the weight disappeared immediately. My sweethearts were mobilized, and I wasn't in it alone. Turns out the answer to their question was, "Nothing at the moment. But I'll get back to you if that changes."
No judgments. Only support.