When was the last time you were shouted at?
A kneejerk response happens when we feel under attack- the fight-or-flight response. Most people rarely experience these situations (when emotions are heightened). But customer-facing and people-oriented roles often involve just that.
If you work in customer service, the last time you got shouted at probably wasn’t that long ago. There’s a huge amount of literature about de-escalating situations in person (relevant to police officers or retail workers, for example). And another set of literature out there about de-escalating situations on the phone (in a typical call center).
Deescalating via text if you’re writing to someone via email? That’s a hard one.
Text involves distance. You’d think that distance makes it easier to de-escalate. It does, in some ways. There’s no vocal shouting involved, so the stress response is a little less intense. In other ways, it makes it far more complicated. The tone is incredibly hard to read. Empathy doesn’t come across quite the same way. Choosing the right words for an emotional situation is three times as hard when you’ll be communicating via text.
The 5As of De-Escalation is a framework to help you craft the right response for that situation.
Imagine your company has rolled out an extremely unpopular decision amongst your team, and one of them emails you a long message explaining why. Or a customer follows your product’s navigation instructions into a forest, gets lost, ends up in a dangerous situation, and then reaches out in rage and disappointment.
These are tough circumstances to handle. Taking a good amount of care with your responses is essential. That’s where using this framework can be helpful.
It has a lot in common with the techniques used in person and on a phone, but it is tailored specifically for text. Here’s how you can start implementing it today to improve your writing. It’s relevant for anyone who gets into an argument or emotionally fraught situation via email.
The 5As of De-Escalation
Deescalating any situation takes courage and a cool head. Follow these five steps to get closer to a successful resolution. They are:
Starting with acknowledgment is essential. This is the first way to make the person you’re responding to feel heard, so you can break past some of their anger and frustration.
Say you have an unhappy employee who feels they were treated unfairly. Starting with anything other than acknowledging they feel that way gives the impression you don’t care about their feedback. It’s the same with any angry customer. If they’re angry, assume they’re angry for a reason. Validating their emotions brings you both together.
These are some formulations that indicate acknowledgment:
- I’m sorry to hear you had an experience like this. This isn’t what we aim for.
- That sounds frustrating! I’m here to help you sort it out.
- I understand that … didn’t meet your expectations in this case. I’m sorry about that.
- I can see why you’re disappointed. Let’s work through this together.
This is where you get into the meat of the argument. Nothing sends the message that you don’t care the way replying to only one or two points when someone sends you an email (or even text or live chat) with a long list of them.
The best way to address comprehensively is to list out, for yourself, each of the issues they raise and then reply to as many of them as possible. Aim to reply to all of them, but if you have similar replies to a couple, you can merge them.
A good example of this one is an angry customer who reaches out with a series of feature requests. It might be tempting to give them a generic reply like “thanks for the feedback.” A better experience is to go through them, offer workarounds, and provide detailed information about the status quo to each one–even if it takes much longer.
Here are some formulations that suggest you’re addressing their points:
- Let me go through each of your points. It sounds like you…
- I want to confirm I’m on the right page here. Are you…
- This is what I did to investigate what happened. I followed up with…
The next part is to assert your perspective. If you’re representing your company, this is where that comes through. Being too assertive gives the impression of arrogance or defensiveness. Being too hesitant implies you either don’t know what you’re talking about or you don’t agree with your company policy.
Imagine an applicant expressing frustration because your hiring process is taking too long. Apologizing is fair enough–you don’t want to keep people waiting. What works even better is a couple of lines about you taking time to engage with applications properly. You want to honour the time your applicants invest and make good decisions for everyone while juggling many priorities.
Asserting anything without the next couple of steps is shooting yourself in the foot. You can’t end your argument by explaining your perspective. You have to concede some points as well.
Hitting the right tone with an assertion is hard. Some ways you could phrase it are:
- We decided to do it this way because of these reasons:
- The idea behind … is to enable you to …
- Our intention with this was to…
- Let me explain the thought process behind that.
This is an essential step. It should always come after an assertion, although you can include it earlier too. Find something about their argument that you agree with.
In the example with the annoyed applicant above, you can concede that you should keep candidates up to date and let them know the status, so you don’t keep them hanging. A little goes a long way.
Agreeing is quite simple in practice. Here’s what it looks like:
- We definitely have opportunities for improvement. We could…
- We’re currently working on improving … for the future.
- I’ll pass on your feedback to … so we can change …
- I completely see where you’re coming from when it comes to…
Wrap up with an appeal. Suggest any solution at all, even if it’s a temporary one. You might not be able to do much at all, and that’s fine–own that and let them know. People respond much better to understanding the limitations than if you overpromise.
Appealing works best if you can involve the other person in finding a solution. Some examples of what appealing looks like:
- The best option I can offer for now is to…
- One way to work around this is…
- I hope you understand why our hands are tied here. It might help to…
- It would help us out a lot if you could…
- I’ll be discussing this in more detail with…
Dealing with difficult people
Difficult people come in all shapes and sizes. You might across them in customer service when you have angry and dissatisfied customers. You might come across applicants who are unhappy with your hiring process or employees who don’t engage with feedback.
The term “difficult” doesn’t mean they’re wrong–in fact, it probably means they’re right. They often make a point that sets you back on your heels, so you must take a few minutes to respond properly to the situation.
That doesn’t make this framework infallible. Not every situation can be de-escalated, and sometimes people are angry with just cause. In those cases, engaging properly and trying is still better than the alternative.
Try these, see how they work for you, and adjust your style accordingly.