How is it possible to remain calm and respectful in all situations?

During December and January I’ve been presenting to a government agency working with communities who are often upset, angry, or emotional. Often community members feel frustrated about their ability to influence. They feel there’s not enough action, the action is in the wrong direction, or sometimes they believe they are not listened to and heard.

Often their concerns will be valid. My task has been to provide them with guidance so they can remain calm, positive and confident. To respond well to people’s concerns it’s very important that the staff feel they have skills to work in these situations.

As these presentations are only short I have been keen to make them practical so that people walk away with strategies to try, as well as increasing their knowledge about how to work with people who are ‘outraged’.

There are three main points that are important to remember:

  1. You can’t change other people. You can only change something about yourself. This is likely to involve a combination of your thinking, feelings and behaviour.
  2. When someone is very upset what’s going on for him or her is very intense and personal. It may not be about the particular staff member at all. However, if people take it personally then they will end up mirroring the negative emotions of the person they’re talking with. When this happens it’s likely conflict and misunderstanding will be the result. It helps to remember not to take it personally.
  3. Interacting with people who are emotionally charged can trigger intense feelings. Throughout my work in the community engagement field I’ve often seen staff become defensive when confronted with people who are critical of their work. They feel the need to defend and this leads to argument. However, arguing usually brings on more argument as people dig down into their ‘bunkers’ to defend even further. What’s really needed is to remain calm and respectful and allow people to get their frustrations out into the open. If we cut across someone who is agitated to ‘correct’ them about the ‘facts’ then it’s likely to make them even more determined to argue things out.

So how is it possible to remain calm and respectful in situations like these?

Whilst this will be the subject of another post in 2015, the short answer is the focus your attention on what you can control, monitor your body language so it’s open and focus on letting the other person say – uninterrupted – what they feel is important to them, even if you don’t agree. If you can listen respectfully it’s much more likely you’ll get a chance to say something later, a heated argument is less likely and there’ll be some goodwill left in the interaction.

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Maryanne Martin