Merge's Blog

Communicating with empathy and understanding works!

So … I teach others how to communicate effectively in the workplace, but that doesn’t mean that I always practice what I teach!  Occasionally, I get so spitting mad at a person or a situation that everything I know just evaporates from my mind.  And that’s exactly what happened to me last Wednesday night!  I was doing some late-night online banking (don’t you just love the Internet!) and I noticed an unexpected fee in one of my accounts.  I called my bank’s 24-hour Customer Service centre and explained my situation to the young man who answered the phone.  Within a few minutes, things went downhill.  Without going into the gory details, the customer “service” rep was condescending, he didn’t listen well, and our conversation ended with him lecturing me about how I should be better educated about the inner workings of my accounts.  Granted, he was probably right on the last point, but as I’ve said over and over again – it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it!  Anyway, unfortunately, I let his superior attitude get to me, and before I knew it, I lost my cool!  By the time I hung up the phone, not only was I no closer to a resolution that when I first placed the call, but I was so furious that steam was coming out of my ears, and I knew that I simply couldn’t let this go!

I went into the branch!

So the next morning, still spitting mad, I went in to my branch.  Now this in itself is a big deal because normally I’ll do just about anything to NOT go into the branch.  I mean, it’s so easy to do almost everything remotely nowadays, why would I go into the branch unless I absolutely NEEDED to?  But of course, on this day, I was a woman on a mission.  I was determined to speak to my branch manager in person – both to dispute the fee and to give the bank a piece of my mind about this so-called customer “service” agent.

After about a 15-minute wait, Ms. Tracy Long invited me into her office.  Ms. Long is the manager at my local Royal Bank branch here in Calgary.  Now I’ve been banking with the Royal Bank for 30 years, (yes, for those of you doing the math, I opened my first account when I was 15 years old!) and even though I’ve been banking at this branch for almost four years, I’ve never met Ms. Long before.  Reassuringly, her response to my complaints was a welcome surprise, and the complete opposite of what I had experienced the night before.  Remember, my professional expertise lies in helping others develop effective workplace communication skills so I knew exactly what she was doing, and I have to tell you, it was a joy to watch a master at work.  Even though I was well aware of her approach and purpose, it didn’t take away from the fact that it worked!  By the time I left her office, I was no longer spitting mad, in fact, I was relatively calm, and all because Ms. Long chose to focus not just on what she said, but also HOW she said it.  Here are six specific things she did that made the difference:

  1. She let me tell my story.  In fact, as I sat down, I mentioned that she may want to look at my record as I was sure that the agent last night had made notes on my account.  Her response: “I’d like you to tell me what happened from your perspective.”
  2. She listened.  She didn’t interrupt, she didn’t argue, she didn’t get defensive.  Enough said.
  3. She acknowledged my frustration, several times.  In other words, she didn’t try to imply that I had nothing to be upset about.  Bravo!
  4. She empathized with my situation, admitting that others who have a similar type of account as I do have faced similar issues.
  5. At the end of our time together, she summarized our conversation, and waited for me to nod assent.
  6. And finally, she outlined what action she was willing to take and gave me a deadline by which she would act.

De-escalation works

Now here’s the thing, I don’t know if the fee dispute will be resolved to my satisfaction as I’m still waiting to hear back; Ms. Long promised to respond to me after April 19.  And who knows, my quarrel over the fee may be the subject of a future blog post :).  But no matter what the outcome, you still have to admire and respect how Ms. Long handled the situation, particularly when you compare it to my conversation with one of her colleagues the previous day.  She gave a textbook-perfect illustration of how you can de-escalate a difficult situation with a client by communicating with empathy and understanding, and it worked!  Don’t you just love it when things happen exactly the way they should?!

What’s been your experience when it comes to dealing with a difficult situation with a client, boss or co-worker?


  • Merge,

    I do think that had I had this information prior to December 2008 I would still be working for the company that laid me off.
    I was assigned a reinspection claim from hurricane damaging winds in Houston, Tx. The client was extremely upset due to the fact that he could not get a contractor quick enough to do roof repairs and additional interior damages resulted when an unexpected rain came into the area.
    I met with the policyholder and listened to his issues as we walked from room to room in not in specific order as he pointed out the additional damages being claimed.
    I glanced at my watch making a mental note to completing this task and making my next appointment on time. I then proceeded to make the comment, “I am going to take charge here,” and we will go room by room per the estimate and address each room’s damages. When I completed this estimate I handed it to him stating everything that he asked for had been addressed and to send in the completed repair bill for the recoverable depreciation and departed.
    Approximately a month later I received my pink slip for upsetting this customer who wrote a complaint letter. I felt that the company did me wrong.
    I have replayed this situation over and over in my head trying to figure out what I did wrong. Upon reading this blog I did not choose the proper words and show as much empathy I as should have. I was defensive because he attacked my company initially and I took it persoanlly. I did not take time to step back and see the situation from his perspective. A valuable lesson learned. We say we listen but do we really…hear what is being said. Thank you for the December update.

  • Wow, Gary, what an experience! Situations such as this are always tough, and I am sorry to hear that you ended up on the wrong side of this one. When difficult circumstances arise, it’s always good if we can look back at it sometime in the future (when we have recovered from the pain) and see what we can learn from it. You clearly have — congratulations! I know it sounds terribly cliche, so I apologize in advance … but you are a better leader and communicator now for this challenging situation from your past. Bravo for learning from it!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.