Tuesday, January 16, 2018

calm and centered

The second annual Women's March is coming through our town on Saturday. B. has signed up to be a Safety Monitor, which means she can participate while being stationed at a particular spot, in her case in the park where the march is terminating, instead of walking a mile, which would be hard on her feet. She's received the same training and handouts given to the Peace Ambassadors, who are the front-line people for dealing with conflict and counter-protesters.

One of the handouts describes "The CLARA Method of De-Escalation" and particularly interested me, because it shows the very rare grasp of how to deal with angry people. (I'm referring here not to counter-protesters, who have a pre-arranged agenda, but to people who've gotten spontaneously angry just because they're PO'd about something.) The name is an acronym for 5 steps: 1, Calm and Center; 2, Listen; 3, Affirm; 4, Respond; 5, Add Information. A similar though not identical text to the handout is on p. 8-9 of this online PDF.

The handout says that most people tend to start with step 4, especially with hostile opponents, but in fact step 4 - which is "answer the question; respond to the issue the person raised" - would still be better than what most people do, which is the exact opposite of all five steps. The usual escalation of conflict technique, refined to perfection by employees of organizations whose procedures are designed to produce frustrated and angry patrons and customers, is: 1, Get Angry Yourself; 2, Don't Listen (pay no attention to the substance of the complaint; this shows that you don't care about the problem); 3, Deny Them Agency (by the time-honored technique of ordering them to calm down before anything else happens; this shows further that you're not interested in the substance of the issue and are only concerned with establishing your own dominance); 4-5, well, you don't even need to get to that, because by now you've riled up the other person so much that you can order them out of the building or slam down the phone, and thus be rid of them, which is all you really wanted anyway.

The CLARA handout says not to proceed beyond step 3, Affirm, "until the speaker has calmed down and seems willing to listen." This is so exactly right! What steps 2 and 3 do is show that you are interested in their complaint and that you do care about dealing with it. If you do that, they will calm down spontaneously. Really, it works! Remember that they didn't start out angry: they got angry out of frustration that their issues were not being dealt with. If you order them to calm down, you're just reinforcing that. Even if you can't solve the problem, showing concern or suggesting amelioration or workarounds can work wonders.

I'm far from a master of interpersonal communication, but when I've been the face of an organization and therefore responsible for speaking for it - as a reference librarian, or running a convention - I've employed these principles for dealing with complaints, a sort of home-brewed version of CLARA, with great success.

The one caution I would give concerns step 3, Affirm. This says, "Express the connection that you found when you listened ... The exact words don't matter." This is wise, but it can easily - too easily, I fear - be assimilated into a pop-psych technique of affirming by repeating back to the person what they said. That only works if it's done with exceptional skill; mostly it's either parroting the exact words (prefaced with "So what you're saying is ...") or some idiotically simple analysis ("You sound really angry"). What these fail to show, what you have to do, is that you've not just heard them but assimilated, understood, grasped the meaning of what they said, by putting it through your own mind and taking the next responsive step.

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