Diplomacy is more than saying or doing the right things at the right time; it is avoiding saying or doing the wrong things at any time.
What if you had the power to turn hostile situations into constructive conversation? You already do. You’re called upon to deliver bad news to clients, reprimand employees, and diffuse difficult people and situations. Issac Newton said, “Tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy.”
As a leader, you want to do what’s needed to get the job done. As a professional, you want to be a role model for how to turn hostility into harmony.
Diplomacy is more than saying or doing the right things at the right time; it is avoiding saying or doing the wrong things at any time. Words can become weapons, so arm yourself instead with advanced communication skills.
Ready, Aim, Speak
It’s an indulgence to just react. How do you fast-forward through frustration? Sam Horn offers valuable advice in “Tongue Fu! How to Deflect, Disarm and Defuse Any Verbal Conflict.” Her goal is to teach us how to deal with difficult people without becoming one.
Here, customized for you, is the essence of her recommendations, which she calls “martial arts for the mind and the mouth.”
Step 1: Ask yourself, “How would I feel if this were happening to me?” Consider the situation from the other person’s point of view. You can shame him or you can shape him. Take the time to find out what’s causing the bad behavior so that you can work on solutions together. Tempering your temper accordingly turn exasperation into empathy.
Scenario: A veterinary nurse makes the same mistake again. You, reactive: “You say you want to improve, but you always act before you think.” Or you, proactive: “I know you want to do well and it’s important that this be done correctly. Let’s break it down and see where the problem is so that next time you’ll have mastered the procedure.”
Scenario: A pet owner is angry about the size of the bill. You, reactive: “Look, we took care of your pup’s emergency surgery, but you don’t seem to appreciate that. This is a business, not a charity.” You, proactive: “You’re upset and I understand that. We’re both pleased that Duke is going to be fine. Let’s talk about how we can work with you on a payment plan.”
Try substituting “and” for “but” to change the tone without avoiding the situation. You become a coach instead of a critic.
Avoid Hitting Hot Buttons
Step 2: You know the trigger words that anger you: “You never …,” “You always …,” “You should have …,” and “You have to ….” Let the force be with you. Vow to remove those incendiary words from your vocabulary toolkit. How you make others feel about themselves says a lot about you. Flying off the handle when you are irritated or putting someone in their place when they’ve tried your patience reveals more about you than the offender. And it’s just not helpful. Being kind takes strength, yet the loyalty earned is worth it.
Scenario: Your practice manager admits she’s allowed too many employees to take vacation at the same time. You, reactive: “You should have paid more attention! You never have been able to say ‘no’ when you should.” You, proactive: “Let’s develop an office policy that will be fair to all employees and a system that will track their requests so we don’t get surprised. Being firm is easier if we are consistently fair.”
Scenario: Your business partner or associate says she’s tired and just can’t do emergency calls anymore. You, reactive: “Everyone in this practice is tired. Tired of having personal time interrupted and just plain tired. You have to step up to the plate and do your part.” You, proactive: “I understand and wish that for all of us. We’ll be able to take fewer emergency calls when we hire another veterinarian. Let’s talk about how we can be able to afford to do that sooner rather than later.” Instead of replying with what you can’t do, let her know you want to help and talk about what you can do once certain things are in place.
A Spoonful of Empathy Helps the Medicine Go Down
Step 3: Sam Horn advises that when people complain, take the AAA Train: agree, apologize, act. This allows you to acknowledge without arguing.
Scenario: A client has been waiting an hour and is irate. Instead of going through why she can’t do anything about it, your receptionist agrees: “You’re right, sir. You did have a 3 o’clock appointment.” She apologizes: “And I’m sorry you’ve had to wait so long. The doctor had an emergency surgery.” Then she acts: “Let me check to see how much longer he’s going to be or if another vet can see you sooner. I know your time is very important. Thank you for understanding.”
(Note: After 15 to 30 minutes, suggest rescheduling the appointment if another pet needs emergency care.)
Scenario: A staff meeting turns into a gripe session about being overworked. You, reactive: “We told you when we hired you that it’s a fast-paced office. You should examine your commitment to us and figure out how to become more efficient. I’m tired of hearing your negativity.” You, proactive and agreeable: “I hear you. Our success is requiring a lot from all of us.” You apologize: “We don’t want you to get burned out. You deserve a peaceful workplace.” Then you act: “There are some things we can’t control and there are some we can. Before the next staff meeting, send me an email with your suggestions about things we can do to make working here a good experience for everyone. I’ll summarize them and we can talk at the meeting about things we can change.”
Most Anger Is a Cry for Attention
Ever notice how much the word “anger” looks like “danger”? There’s a reason for it. Anger erupts when people feel they are not being listened to or when their concerns are not being respected. Our busy schedule as professionals doesn’t give us the right to rush others or to be rude. Being patient as you listen can take the angst out of angry clients. Let them tell their story. Look at them as they speak. Nod your head to signal that you understand. Lean forward to show you are paying attention.
Because your time is a factor, you can respectfully guide the conversation to stay focused on the issue. You can tactfully interrupt if the client starts repeating herself. You, proactive: “Ms. Tucker, thank you for explaining the problem. Let me examine Fluffy with those things in mind and we’ll figure out why she’s not feeling well.” Acknowledge that you are in this situation together and that you will work together to solve the problem, whether it’s a pet owner who is distraught or a dissatisfied employee.
Not Your Style?
Perhaps all this boils down to what you want to be known for. Exhibiting grace under pressure is a hard-won reputation. William James said, “If you want a quality, act as if you already had it. Try the ‘as if’ technique.” It may not feel authentic as you integrate some of these skills into your management style, yet it’s generally true that an old dog is one that appreciates a new trick.
You don’t have to become someone else. Think of it as bringing your best self to the office table so that others can learn manners worthy of a harmonious workplace.
Judy Gray is president of CEOonCall in Tallahassee, Florida. She served as interim CEO of the North American Veterinary Community in 2012 and 2013.