The other day, one of the pharmacists I work with was waiting on a patient. This patient, Mr G, became angry about the price of his prescription. He swore at the pharmacist, called him a nose hole and said, “Pluck you!” as he walked away.*
The pharmacist thinks that Mr. G. is the real nose hole here and decides that we will no longer be taking care of Mr. G. He needs to find another pharmacy.
For the most part, people are kind, patient, and respectful. However, every once in a while, you have a run-in with someone like Mr. G. The experience can ruin your day, by making you feel angry and frustrated. You may even want to retaliate.
There’s another way to handle these situations that is empowering and also creates more peace and harmony in the workplace.
Step 1: Don’t Take It Personally
When someone attacks you verbally, It’s natural to go into the “fight or flight” response. You either want to yell back at them in self-defense (fight) or get as far away from them as possible (flight). You can train yourself out of this “lizard brain” response.
It’s helpful to remember that when someone is upset, angry, or yelling, even if it’s at you, it’s not really about you. It’s about them. A good strategy to use when someone is making a scene is to observe the person without adding any judgement. Resist the tendency to think the person is “mean,” “crazy,” or “out to get you.” Just observe them. Has the color of their face changed? Are their nostrils flaring? Notice how they move their body. Are their hands waving, or is their finger pointing at you? What is the tone in their voice? Is it full of anger, fear, or frustration?
Make a mental note of the words being used. Listen as carefully as possible so you don’t gloss over or make assumptions about what it is they’re upset about. This approach will give your mind something to do, so you don’t accidentally say something you might regret later. You will need this information for the last step in resolving the conflict.
Step 2: Be Open to Understanding
There are ways to change how you look at these situations. You really don’t know what someone else is going through. Let’s go back to Mr G. and the pharmacist above. Perhaps Mr. G. has Tourette syndrome. Perhaps he just lost his wife to COVID-19 and has no one to talk with now. The isolation has become unbearable, and he snapped.
When tempers flare up, it’s not the best time to resolve the problem. You could say to your patient, “Mr. G., I see that you’re really angry right now. I want to resolve this, but now is not the time. Let’s part ways, and I’ll call you later.”
Barring any true emergency, most things people are upset about can wait until cooler heads prevail. Besides, when most people know you’re not abandoning them, they are glad to have the “out.” Most people don’t like the feeling of being out of control.
Step 3: Find Out More Information
Once you are calm, you can follow up and get more information. This will allow you to better understand how to resolve this conflict. Call the patient and ask if this is a good time to talk. Then, recap what happened as well as the effect of the person’s actions.
In the case of Mr. G, the conversation would start something like this. “Mr. G. when you yelled at my pharmacist, calling him a nose hole while pointing your finger, it really put her on the defensive. She is still upset, so I wanted to step in and see what I can do to help. But before I go any further, is there something going on with you I should know about?”
This will give Mr. G. the opportunity to tell you about a disorder he has or some suffering he is enduring. Listen and take notes. This will help you to not interrupt or argue. When you choose to listen, it doesn’t mean you’ve accepted—or will tolerate—bad behavior. It’s kind and gracious to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
Step 4: Hold Them Accountable
Once you’ve established that Mr. G. doesn’t have a disorder like Tourette syndrome, you know that he is able to control the words that come out of his mouth. Let’s say he did suffer a terrible loss. What happened in your pharmacy, made him lose control. You can say, “Mr. G.,I am truly sorry that you are going through this suffering. We all lose our tempers sometimes.” Then, tell your patient what you expect going forward, “Mr. G, if we are to continue our relationship with you, then you must promise me that you will never yell at anyone or call anyone names ever again. I am happy to move forward with a clean slate if you agree to this. I will hold you to it.”
Most people will be happy to be given another chance and agree to your terms. Some will not, and that’s OK too. You can end the relationship on good terms, “Mr. G. I’m truly sorry that we can’t agree on this. If you ever change your mind and agree to my terms, please do come back to us. In the meantime, where would you like me to transfer your prescriptions?”
Remember, to hold someone accountable is to hold them in high esteem. Some of my most loyal, kind, patient, and grateful patients started out as strangers yelling at me about something that had gone wrong.
Resolving conflict is a skill and therefore can be learned. If you want a peaceful work environment, you’re going to have to resolve conflict. Thankfully, this skill gets easier with practice. It’s worth getting past your fear of confrontation in order to grow. You’ll get more respect from your patients, have more confidence in yourself, and get to enjoy the environment you have created.
*the language was changed to keep this post family friendly