Managing a way out of disagreements

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A huge part of being a leader is managing complaints and disagreements.  It may be one of the aspects of your role that you dread.  Some leaders thrive on it; loving the opportunities to listen, and support others to reach resolutions.  In some organisations, they devote whole teams to managing complaints.  In most small and medium sized businesses we don’t have that luxury; it’s yet another one of those things we must all do.

What is absolutely clear is each and every leader and manager should have strategies up their sleeves to deal with them.  Complaints often come without warning; sometimes you can see them brewing, but more often than not they present themselves when you are busy doing something else.  And they come from all directions, they can come from children, parents, partner organisations, next-door-neighbours, funders, clients, management, staff, and volunteers.  So, knowing how to structure a response to a complaint, without making it worse in the short-term is an essential part of all our tool-boxes.  It is part of team leadership, customer care, and time management as well.

What’s worked for me is something I picked up when training customer care staff in the tour operator world.  And a useful way to remember it is APAC, which represents: acknowledge, probe, answer, and close.

I think that acknowledging a person’s complaint in the single most effective strategy of all.  Demonstrating you have heard them, and you believe they have a point will show you are not going to argue.  This will support them to move their energies away from trying to convince you, and instead move to working with you to tell you more.  Fail to acknowledge and they may get angrier, louder, more aggressive, or frustrated.  And both of you will be going nowhere fast.

And it is the second stage, probe, where both sides, but especially you, can ask for some of the facts that will support you to understand in detail about the problem or the events leading to it.  Through this stage your well-practised body language and empathy can show how you are likely to respond with something serious and considered thoughts.  Including the word ‘yes’ frequently during the acknowledgement and probing will also help.

Then give your answer.  But make sure you give yourself sufficient time to think, so you don’t rush into saying things you don’t mean or will regret.  This may be a few moments, a few minutes or even hours or days if this is appropriate.  But in the heat of the moment, phrases like ‘let me think about that for a second’ explains to the complainant that your silence isn’t empty or unhelpful, but about you carefully considering what they have said, and what you are going to do.  There is an opportunity for them to think about what they could or should do.  To take ownership of their own resolution.

Close is all about gaining agreement your answer is okay or acceptable.  If not, remember APAC and probe some more, then return to reiterate or replace answer, before reaching the close again.

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