Complaint resolution: a practiced skill

2006

If you want to be able to deal effectively with complaints it is essential that you absorb a process. And that's something that takes practice to get right.

The first piece in this series talked about how it's perfectly reasonable to have a complaint; but how one presents a complaint determines whether one is seen as part of the problem or part of the solution.

In part two I talked about the need to set good boundaries, but also to aggressively understand the nature of a complaint before taking action.

Here in part three let's continue our look at the nature of complaints - and how to resolve them.

Resolving complaints is easy when trust exists. Yet many efforts at resolving complaints fail for one primary reason, namely fear. When our natural fear of losing something or not getting something we want takes over our brain, our ability to understand another person's perspective usually goes out the window.

There's actually a scientific explanation for this. When in a state of fear, the brain automatically directs blood flow to the "fight or flight" muscles. When this happens, the prefrontal cortex, the active-thinking part of the brain, gets less blood, which means not enough energy to function well.

For this reason, it's imperative that we absorb a process for handling complaints. We can't just read it, recite it and then say we know how to do it. Knowing how to do it in theory and being able to do it for real are two completely different things.

To illustrate this, consider how most people will run away from a fire. But firefighters spend time in training so they can calmly and professionally eliminate the fire. If you watch firemen do their job, you'll notice that it's not a frenetic activity. They always stop and understand their situation before proceeding.

Similarly, understanding a complaint is one hundred percent fundamental. But if we're to move ahead we've got to be able to communicate what it is we understand without an ounce of agreement, disagreement, approval, or disapproval. We need to be objective. We can't take sides.

If we allow fear to influence our voice tone and listening ability (and it usually does), it will get in the way of our ability to be objective.

It may help to think of all this as two separate steps. First, aggressively focus our attention and understand the other person's position. Second, communicate what we understand.

The act of "communicating what we understand" is best done by paraphrasing. Simply repeating somebody's words is a step in the right direction, but we'll make huge leaps in the right direction if we can capture the essence of what someone is saying and use a few different but well-chosen words to rephrase what was said.

People don't care how much you know until they know you care

Avoid using the phrase "I understand." It's well-intended and it's quite efficient (only two words!), but in reality it does nothing to communicate that you do, in fact, understand. Summarizing someone's position in your own words takes a lot more effort, but when we can do that we are demonstrating that we genuinely understand. Crucially, that builds trust.

The reason I stress this is that people don't care how much you know until they know you care. In other words, they won't care about your ideas for a solution unless they know you care, and it's much more effective to show you care (by paraphrasing) than by telling them you care (by saying "I understand").

Did I say we have to practice this? This is the kind of listening that is left out of almost every school curriculum on the face of the planet.

Amazingly, when people with complaints start feeling understood, their own fears of not being heard are alleviated, and their prefrontal cortex begins receiving normal blood flow once again. It's at that point that we have established enough trust to move forward in search of a solution.

Perhaps one of the most effective ways to move forward is to ask the person with the complaint what he or she would like to have happen. Unless you passed a telepathy class, you have no way to know for sure what will satisfy a complaint unless you ask.

Once we know what might resolve a complaint, we can move forth to investigate what can or can't be done. The key to success in all of this is to remain objective (avoid approval/disapproval) and be confident that a solution can be found if dialog remains open in an objective, trusting manner.

Bottom line, to be good at this we'll need to practice, or our own emotions and fears will taint our objectivity. No one waves a magic wand and makes a fireman calm in the face of a fire. He is a trained and practiced professional. If we're going to be a workplace professional, we must do the same.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.