When and How to Say “Enough”


When and How to Say “Enough”

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Des Whitehorn


It is not unusual these days for people to use “bad” language, personal insults, and belittling phrases when they are frustrated, under pressure themselves, or don’t feel things are being done quickly enough. This especially happens on the telephone where a caller’s verbal attack can be highly offensive and may overstep acceptable and manageable boundaries of anger. So here are the top ten tips for handling verbal aggression on the telephone:

1. Don’t home in on the language issue too soon, or we run the risk of creating another issue: an already enraged caller who thinks we are “telling them off.”

2. Separate the “issue” from the “person.” Try to concentrate on the facts and cause of the caller’s problems, rather than how they are saying it. If we can remain unemotional and factual they are less likely to continue the tirade. After all, it is the issue that the caller wants resolved!

3. Avoid using “red rag” phrases like “Tantrums, tantrums”; “When you’ve calmed down…”; “I don’t get paid to be insulted.”

4. Be careful that your own assumptions and sensitivities don’t lead you to make incorrect judgments, e.g., “It’s because I’m not a partner”; “It’s because I’m a woman”; “It’s because I sound young.” Reinforcing your insecurities to yourself will become a negative cycle for the future.

5. Make sure they know who you are. It is easy to be abusive when they are dealing with a faceless person over the phone but harder to lash out at a person. So make sure you personalize the encounter by giving them your name, following this immediately with a reassurance that you would like to resolve the situation for them.

6. Use their name to personalize the conversation. But be careful about using people’s first names:  Stick to their more formal title unless you know it is acceptable to use their first name. And don’t overuse it!

7. When the verbal aggression becomes extreme or prolonged, state firmly and positively what you can do, and what you are willing to do. However, link it to what they are doing which is unacceptable. “Mrs. Elliott, I can help resolve this for you; however, please, will you stop shouting.”

8. If nothing changes, emphasize this point again, restating what is not acceptable to you. “I’m trying to resolve this for you, Mrs. Elliott, but I cannot while you continue to shout.”

9. Finally, warn the aggressor of what you will do if they don’t stop their unacceptable behavior. “Mrs Elliott, I am not prepared to be spoken to in this way and will put the phone down if this continues.”

10. And do it if they continue. (With apologies to Mrs. Elliott).

© Copyright 2016 The Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs.