The conversation cul de sacHave you ever navigated into a conversation cul-de-sac? A dead end street! When did you last find yourself in a conversation that took an unexpected turn? A comment that embarrassed or offended you? A comment that stunned you into silence or panic.

Yesterday I was working with a group of professionals whose customers are challenging for a variety of reasons. On the receiving end of a range of aggressive behaviours chosen to belittle to shock, to denigrate, these professionals feel beaten up, overwhelmed and as a result are often backed into a conversation cul-de-sac.

This group once knew how to consistently deliver effective customer service with efficiency, however, increased demand on service delivery and a clientele with mental ill health issues that often manifest in unacceptable behaviour has led to (by their own admission) an apathetic response one that lacks the empathy and support that many of these customers need.

To doggedly pursue the workshop or respond to the need – what would you have done?

Such was the force of feeling in the room I decided that the workshop materials I had been provided with which involved role playing difficult conversations which nobody had an appetite for were not going to provide the development or support that this group needed. Instead I decided to focus on understanding underlying triggers driving the difficult behaviour and to develop responses that enabled individuals to avoid or exit the conversation cul de sac with self esteem intact knowing that they had effectively and efficiently managed the challenge.

Threat or Reward

There are certain factors that can activate a threat response and that perceived threat can trigger our fight, flight, freeze or appease default reactions this is especially true when it comes to behaviours we need for survival.

The limbic system is the part of the brain involved in our behavioural and emotional responses and when threatened the limbic brain is in the driver’s seat.
The limbic system is activated when it comes to behaviours we need for survival
The fear response starts in a region of the brain called the amygdala a threat stimulus, triggers a fear response in the amygdala, which activates areas involved in fight or flight responses.
The hippocampus is closely connected with the amygdala. The hippocampus helps the brain interpret the perceived threat. which helps a person know whether a perceived threat is real. How we experience fear has to do with the context. When our “thinking” brain gives feedback to our “emotional” brain and we perceive ourselves as being in a safe space, we can then quickly shift the way we experience that perceived threat

Basically, our “thinking” circuit brain reassures our “emotional” areas that we are, in fact, OK.

What was important for individuals in this group to realise is that despite the threat they are all in a safe space and surrounded by people who can support through their understanding and that emotional support can be contagious in a positive way

Sense of Control

Understanding context and seeking support from others influence the way we experience fear these actions also put us back in control. When we are able to recognize what is and isn’t a real threat, and relabel an experience we will ultimately arrive at a place where we feel in control.

That perception of control is vital to how we experience and respond to fear. When we overcome the initial “fight or flight” rush, we are often left feeling satisfied, reassured of our safety and more confident in our ability to confront the things that initially scared us.

Conversation cul-de-sacs can feel like many things – but they are never comfortable.

The conversation cul-de-sac how to remain in control

There are some simple yet smart ways to help remain in control and minimize the perception of threat.

    • Look around you realise you are in safe environment with colleagues who are willing to support
    • Recognise your own triggers and reactions
    • Listen for understanding. When we feel threatened we tend to listen only for more threats. Asking questions will gain clarity and help you to respond rather than react
    • Be prepared to describe the behaviour that you find unacceptable and to warn the customer that you will disconnect the call (The power is in your hands)
    • If you remain uncomfortable, have some ready responses that allow you to remove yourself from the cul-de-sac.

“I’m rubber you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you!”

Finally we explored resilience at work and the importance of positive relationships in fostering resilience. using the rsvp images of resilience cards which helped us to compile top tips for remaining resilient.

We decided that the mindset that would be most useful is one that enables us not to take the insults personally and to realise that you did your absolute best in the face of some very difficult behaviours and comments that really are a reflection of who the other person is.

That isn’t something that you want to stick to you because it will mar the quality of service you provide to the next caller.

The insults you throw at me do not stick to me. I do not let them hurt me. In fact, the insults you have thrown at me will bounce off of me and stick to you, because I am rubber. I am resilient! I will “bounce back”,

They adopted “I’m rubber you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you!” as their team mantra

Armed to the teeth with new ways of thinking and understanding why a customer may behave that way and a set of tools to help them to avoid the conversation cul-de-sac and respond to conflict with confidence, my job was done!