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Learn why customers act badly, and the basic customer defusing principles - Free Book Excerpt

Chapter II - Part 2

The Nature of Hostile, & Abusive Behavior

In this chapter, from Defusing Hostile Customers Workbook, we introduce some important definitions, and explain when and how people learn to be verbally aggressive. We also discuss the needs of angry people, and the rules of the abuse game.

This is continued from here.


We can define violence as any activity that is intended to cause, or can cause physical harm to another person, be it you, a coworker, or customer. Some actions involving physical contact, such as arm‑grabbing or shoulder­ grabbing can be legally interpreted as assault, so we include them in this category, even if they cause no physical harm. Other actions, such as throwing things would be considered violent behavior if there is intent to cause harm or harm was done. However, “acting‑out” behaviors, like ripping up papers and throwing them, or sweeping things off a desk are not violent by our definition. Abusive, yes. Hostile, yes.

Just a point or two about physical violence of this sort. Generally, this kind of behavior doesn't come out of the blue, but is part of a sequence of events that involves verbal abuse. What this means is that by learning to defuse hostility and verbal abuse, you are more likely to reduce the potential for physical violence.

Your first priority is to ensure your own physical safety, and the safety of those around you. For this reason, most organizations will accept that you have a right to remove yourself from a situation, or request backup assistance in situations where you feel physically threatened.

You don't have to be absolutely sure a physical threat exists. You don't want to take chances. If your organization takes a different view, show this to your bosses! It's in everyone's interest to ensure a safe work environment.
Implications & Key Points

1. While we would like people to like us, and not be angry with us, if we choose this as a goal, we are bound to be disappointed. We try to make our customers happy, but the truth is that many government jobs involve giving bad news that is going to make people unhappy.

2. Anger is a feeling that belongs to the other person. It's impossible to stop a person from having feelings. Hostile and abusive behavior is another story. We want to focus our defusing efforts on reducing the amount of hostile verbal and nonverbal behavior. That is a realistic goal.

3. In a later chapter, we will flesh out the notion that abusive behavior is about control. The hostile or abusive person is trying to manipulate and control you and your decision‑making. We want to make sure we don't allow this, and later we will discuss how to “counter control”.

4. We need to provide some leeway for people to express their anger, provided the expressions are not demeaning, insulting or manipulative. If we react to every four letter word, twitch, or raised voice, we will go nuts, and we won't be very good at defusing the abusive situations.

Where Does Hostile/Abusive Behavior Come From?

While hostile or abusive behavior is unpleasant, the better we understand it, the more likely we are to remain in control of ourselves and the situation. Besides this very practical point, it is quite interesting to examine when people learn to be nasty, and what the process looks like. We will find that learning how to exhibit angry, hostile and even abusive behavior is a normal part of the human development process. However, while virtually everyone knows how to be nasty, that doesn't make it acceptable. Most people, having learned how to do it, also learn that it is not usually socially acceptable, at least, until the point when emotions run high.

In The Beginning

Defusing angry customers workbook featuresLet's take a little time traveling trip, back to the time when you were born. When you entered the world, your task, whether you chose to accept it or not, was pre assigned. Your goal was to learn how to master your environment, and how to act in it to receive the things you needed to survive (food, contact, stimulation, etc.). You needed to communicate with your caregivers, so they would be able to take care of you, but of course, you couldn't say “Golly, I sure am hungry”, since you couldn't talk yet. At this point in time, you are wired to be selfish

Luckily, you had other ways of communicating, ways that didn't require the use of words. You were “built” so when you experienced discomfort, you would express that discomfort in ways that your parents could react to. If hungry, you could cry, move and kick, and turn red in the face. Or, if you were wet, you could cry, move and kick, and turn red in the face. In fact, crying, moving, and kicking and turning red in the face were about the only things you could do, since you hadn't learned much else.

Now, what is a parent's natural response to the crying behavior? The parent attempts to figure out the source of your discomfort and to fix the situation. You might be fed, or perhaps your diaper changed. Because your baby behavior wasn't exactly specific, your parents would have to try a few different things to calm you down.

Presumably, after your parents solved the problem, you were much more comfortable and quiet, something of great importance to your parents.

If you look at this cycle carefully, you find a perfect example of what psychologists call the effects of reinforcement. Most people just refer to this as the effects of reward. You naturally showed angry behavior when you were uncomfortable. This angry behavior was a signal to your parents that something was required. And, when they did what you “wanted”, this reinforced the angry behavior.

What you learned was that crying, moving and kicking, and turning red in the face were dandy ways of controlling your environment. When you did so, magic happened, and you became more comfortable. You got what you wanted.

You learned, on a very basic level, about angry behavior.

As The Child Develops

In the early years, prior to learning how to talk, you refined your skills at controlling the environment. At some point, you discovered that throwing a toy at the wall was something almost guaranteed to garner attention, albeit unpleasant attention. You learned that grabbing a toy from a playmate could work really well, at least sometimes. You learned to sulk, pout, and make pleading noises.

So you got pretty good at that nonverbal stuff.

But then you started to learn language ... to talk. By the way, learning language is one of the wonders of childhood, since it seems to occur without teaching ... almost automatically. As you learned how to speak, you acquired additional tools to operate on your environment, to control it, and to manipulate it. And, not surprisingly, you learned how to use language in some rather unpleasant ways.

You learned how to say NO, and how to ask for things in various tones of voice (begging, whining, angry, etc.). You learned that certain words create a big guffuffle (swear words), and discovered you could influence people by using them. You learned the basics of verbal influence or manipulation. The techniques didn't always work very well, but they worked often enough to provide what is called intermittent reinforcement, a powerful form of occasional reward (very similar to what happens with gambling). Even if the desired result was not forthcoming, the techniques garnered a lot of attention.

So, by now you can see that learning how to control the environment through angry and hostile behavior is learned very early. As people get older, they get better at it.

The truth is that by the time you get to be an adult, you are an expert in it. You know how to do it, how to make people mad, how to get people's attention, how to make other people feel guilty, and how to influence the behavior of others.

And In Adulthood...

Now, obviously, the fact that you learned these behaviors doesn't mean that you spend all your waking moments being abusive or trying to manipulate others. You were also socialized that such behavior wasn't good (hopefully). But there is no question that you and billions of other members of the species know how to use these techniques. Even though you may not use them often, you are highly skilled.
Since most people learn that abusive, nasty behavior is not acceptable, how is it that we see so much of it?

The first explanation is that some people haven't learned that abusive behavior is inappropriate, or they have some rationalization they use to make it “seem” justified. What about the others, people who do know that abusive behavior is not acceptable? A lot of “regular” people, perhaps most people, on occasion, use nasty or manipulative techniques with others.

A little more knowledge about human behavior helps us understand why people use hostile behavior. Learning is a funny thing, it isn't a question of whether something is learned or not, but rather how well something is learned. Some things are not learned well, others are learned pretty well, and some things are learned very well, to the point where a person doesn't even have to think about carrying out the learned task (e.g. driving, tying shoelaces, etc.). We call these learned tasks over learned tasks ... things that are learned really well, with lots of practice, so that the person is unlikely to forget. You know them as habits.

Before you start snoozing in the psychology lecture, here is the point. We know that under normal circumstances a person who has learned something “pretty well” will use what they have learned. The exception is when they are emotionally upset. When people are upset, they revert back to earlier, more primitive, better learned behavior.

Here's an example. Tom is a regular guy who has learned a number of communication skills effective in conflict resolution, or problem‑solving. Normally, when Tom is not overly upset, these skills are used. The problem comes when Tom becomes very angry or frightened, so that adrenaline affects him. At some point, if he becomes sufficiently “activated”, he will revert back to behavior learned at an earlier time in life -- behavior that is well learned, and well practiced. You guessed it. The more primitive angry/hostile behaviors that worked so well early in life re‑emerge in the normally rational, calm adult. That's what happens with most of your hostile customers.

As a little test of this theory, have you noticed that adults who are hostile often behave like small children?

It's true that some hostile customers are habitually nasty, bringing a dark cloud with them everywhere they go, but it's also true that many hostile customers are normally rather polite people, who get sufficiently upset to revert back to the more childish behaviors they have over learned during their lives.

Most hostile people, although they may be trying to manipulate you, are not plotting and scheming to get you ... it doesn't work like that. There are very few individuals who actually plot out their strategies in a conscious manner. In a sense, most people are just acting human when they become abusive. They are doing what they are able to do. They don't know how to do things otherwise, given their internal emotional states.

Note that this does not excuse abusive behavior. The point here is that those people are reacting to their internal states and the situation, not to you personally. We will come back to this point when we talk about how you can maintain your own self‑control.