Gazette Vet: Guide to Dealing with “The Unpleasant People”

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By John Andersen, DVM

Working in a busy small animal veterinary hospital, I interact with a lot of people daily. The overwhelming majority of my client interactions are very pleasant; most people in this world are indeed nice, polite, patient, and kind! However, like any service industry, we are at times visited by, let’s just say, “unpleasant people.”

Yes, “the unpleasant people.” Those who enter the doors of a business and at the moment, on the surface, and perhaps deep inside, are not nice, polite, patient, or kind. Throw in a sick animal and an expensive veterinary bill and the unpleasant people can really make themselves known! They knock us off our game and can ruin our day in an instant. They make us stressed out for no good reason at all. This 1 percent of interactions takes up 99 percent of our thoughts when we head home.

Before working as a veterinarian, I waited tables for five years, worked on a landscape crew for four years, and was a paperboy for three years. In all of these jobs I served a wide public and plenty of “unpleasant people.”

When I was younger, “unpleasant people” really upset me. But now, at 39, I no longer dread them. In fact, some of my most rewarding professional experiences have been dealing with unpleasant people and finding the other side. It’s safe to say that each of us has probably been an unpleasant person in some circumstance or another. That is an important point to remember when dealing with an upset customer or client.

So, I humbly offer the following Guide to Dealing with “Unpleasant People:”

Step One: Try.

This is the first step because when Mrs. Jones is at the front desk raising hell (again) and wants to talk to somebody “in charge,” the first thing you’re going to do is make a decision in your head to either try, or not to try.

One of the classic signs of immaturity in these situations is saying, “who cares,” or “she can just go somewhere else.” This is a decision to not try. In any business, every single client or customer is indeed important. Some just take up more time than others. When we decide not to try to help people when they are upset, they can read us like an open book.  But when we decide in earnest to try and help Mrs. Jones with her likely unreasonable demands, on some level, through the yelling and frustration, I guarantee she will know if we are trying or not. In my opinion, it is always worth trying.  I suppose another word for “try” is “care.” It is always worth caring for other people (even when they are being really rude).

Step Two:  Listen.

Listening is a skill.  Through all the tension, the body language, and the complaining, can you actually hear what they are upset about? Sometimes they say it plain and clear. But often you have to listen to everything that they are saying in order to get the big picture. Give each “unpleasant person” the benefit of the doubt that she or he does indeed have something to be upset about, whether you agree or disagree. If you don’t listen and get caught up in arguing, you will both get frustrated and you will lose a client.

Step Three:  Sympathize

This is a two-part step. First, you’ve got to sympathize with people in their current complaint, and picture it from their viewpoints. Second, you also need to zoom out and try to sympathize with why the person is often that way. Consider the extreme case of a child molester. Studies show that almost every child molester was once molested as a child himself/herself. Does this make the person’s current behavior acceptable? Certainly not.  However, when you are trying to understand and communicate with people, you have got to understand why they are who they are. Some people come to your business unpleasant because they had a terrible upbringing. Some people have been dealt terrible loss in their life and have no hope of things improving. Some people have never been shown kindness, love, or compassion. If you can give people the benefit of the doubt and consider that there is a background story, you see through some of the rude behavior and communicate on a much more productive level.

Step Four:  Respect

Do you have to respect their rude behavior or their impatience? No. Just respect them as a person. Every person deserves respect on a very basic level because he or she is a fellow human being. It is sad how this basic respect is sometimes forgotten. If you run a business and serve the public, you should respect everyone that comes in and treat them accordingly. Respect them enough to try, listen, and sympathize, and you will likely have a productive interaction.

Step Five:  Humility

Check your ego at the door. Sometimes you just have to let people talk over you or interrupt you. It’s okay. Dealing with an upset client is not the time to break out your ego or position.  Approach with humility and a spirit of service.

Step Six:  Humor

Don’t be afraid, when the moment is right, to lighten up the mood. Even in the tense moments, sometimes there is humor, and it’s okay to let it come to light. Showing some humor, appropriately, can go a long way to softening the mood and showing people you care enough to keep the conversation going.

Step Seven:  Love

On a very basic level, “Love your neighbor.” This is a really hard thing to do! Ask married people who gets them angrier than anyone else on the planet. I’m guessing 100 percent would say their spouses. But yet they love them.

Loving people means showing them patience, kindness, respect, compassion—all when they do not deserve it.

Loving people like that puts  us back in control of your feelings and goes a long way in helping us leave things behind when we close up shop and head home.

How do we deal with someone who is being rude and unreasonable? Care, listen, sympathize with and respect them, and approach them with humility, humor, and love. Try it!

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