For years our best-selling workshop was dealing with difficult people. Then along came Covid-19. And something significant happened: working from home meant that the difficult colleagues you’d been encountering in the office Monday to Friday were suddenly no longer such a challenge. Why? Because they were in their homes and you were in yours. Put simply out of sight very often meant out of mind. Which was good for your mental health and well being. But bad for our business!
Now, however, as social distancing measures are eased and people are heading back to the office we’ve noticed that interest in our dealing with difficult people training is picking up. And we’re hearing that in some cases people’s behaviour is getting even more challenging than before – perhaps because of the stresses and strains of the last year or so.
So our dealing with difficult people guru, Sandy Keating, has been busy authoring a comprehensive, self-guided online course. At just £19.99 we reckon it’s great value for money. Just click the find out more button to look at the course content and to see a free preview of Sandy in action.
Many companies (I’d hazard most) don’t have a crisis communications plan. A vague idea about what to do in an emergency? Yes. A carefully considered and well rehearsed business continuity plan? Maybe. A clear idea of what to say to stakeholders either internally via the usual channels or externally via the media including, where appropriate, social media? No.
But coronavirus has the potential to make us all wish we had. With the level of infection and disruption now being anticipated at the very highest levels of government, businesses large and small (my own included) face an existential threat. And effective communication with staff, clients, suppliers and others over the coming weeks and months could (and I don’t think I’m overstating this) make a life and death difference. Not just company life and death either.
How so? Because clear, consistent, truthful and timely communications can, for example, make the difference between a pissed off workforce who think their bosses really don’t care and a highly motivated workforce who feel valued and are prepared to be flexible in the face of adversity by working from home, working odd hours, foregoing bonuses, taking unpaid leave…
Because clear, consistent, truthful and timely communications can persuade suppliers to delay issuing that invoice even though they’re experiencing similar cash flow problems. Because effective communication can lower the expectation and heighten the appreciation of customers.
But while being truthful should come naturally 😂 being clear, consistent and timely needs planning and practice.
“The virus is on us. Isn’t it too late now?”
It’s never too late to make a plan which, in any case, doesn’t need to take long – especially in smaller, less complex organisations. The first planning step is to work out what you need/want to say and to who: in other words your key messages and your target audiences. The next step is to map the audiences to what become your target media and channels – internal email, the intranet, external media the internet. Make sure those key messages are clear and concise and can be readily understood by the audience. You might be inclined to say “we’re facing challenges on the supply side of our business so our customers may experience issues with their orders.” Your customers would prefer you to say: “We’re sorry but because of coronavirus it may take us a little bit longer to deliver your parcel. We know you’ll understand. And here, as a thank you for your patience, is a discount code for your next order.”
Being consistent means everybody is communicating the same message (not that the message can’t change – flexibility is key in a crisis). A lack of consistency can lead to confusion. If your line manager is saying staff can work from home but your boss says you’ve got to come to work unless you’re ill you’re likely to lose faith in both.
Being truthful is, I hope, self-explanatory. I may be naive, but honesty and integrity are rewarded. People want to work for and with organisations that genuinely embrace these things. Yes, price is important but value can be expressed in other ways. So what I mean here is more about being open. The truth will out (and with social media probably sooner rather than later) so why hold back. Imagine the furore restaurant chain would face if it didn’t reveal kitchen or wait staff had fallen ill with the virus until two weeks after the outbreak?
Being timely is tied into the above. When a situation is rapidly evolving there’s an inclination to keep quiet until the picture is clearer. But witness the backlash the government has experienced by only issuing virus updates weekly. A backlash so significant that it’s backed down. A “communications fumble” as the Chief Medical Officer admitted. That position was clearly untenable for UK plc and should be for all companies in these worrying times. I’m not suggesting you need to issue a running commentary to staff or in the media. But if the gaps between company bulletins are too long then all sorts of information can rush into the vacuum. Information over which you have no control. In a word or two: fake news.
To help you control the message and draw up and execute your own crisis comms plans we’ll be running a series of webinars for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak. More details to follow. But if you’d like to sign up email me – firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be sure to send you a link and access code.
We understand why you might be reluctant to book a workshop with all the uncertainty surrounding Covid 19. Will I be well enough to attend? Might I have to take time off work to look after children or elderly relatives? Will public transport be running? Is gathering in even a smallish training group sensible in the circumstances? And, of course, because none of us is immune from the potential disruption, will ACM’s trainers be affected? So we give you our coronavirus guarantee: that if for public health reasons you can’t attend or your workshop is postponed then your place is transferrable free of charge to a future date. For many of our more popular courses there will be several dates to choose from up to six months or more ahead so you should be able to find a suitable alternative. And if you can’t? Your money back. Guaranteed.
Let me start by declaring an interest: I believe the monarchy should be abolished and that the UK won’t become a mature democracy unless and until it gets rid of the royals, although I appreciate the enormous sacrifice the queen has made in service of her country and would only make this long overdue constitutional change at the end of her reign.
So the republican part of me was pleased that prince Andrew made such a hash of his Newsnight interview with Emily Maitlis. But the media trainer in me was appalled that someone should perform so badly. Or as one royal watcher put it:
“I was expecting a train crash. That was a plane crashing into an oil tanker, causing a tsunami, triggering a nuclear explosion level bad.”
Charlie Proctor, Royal Central website editor.
The purpose of this post then is to help you avoid a similar nuclear explosion level bad interview should you find yourself in a bunker like the prince.
People with controversies swirling around them do interviews in an attempt to put the record straight and, in doing so, rescue their reputations. But if, as a result, records ends up wonkier and reputations more tattered, then saying nothing is probably the better option – the least said soonest mended approach as it were. It’s a tough call though, not least because you have to factor in not only what you say in response to the questions asked – the content – but how you say it – the tone. And you’ve got to get both right. Plenty of innocent interviewees have been found guilty in the court of public opinion not on factual but on tonal grounds. I should add at this point that although Andrew is being judged on both counts I’m going to limit my comments here to matters of tone because none of us (him and his alleged victim aside) has any way of telling his absolute guilt or innocence.
Being tonally correct means saying you’re sorry even though you may think you have nothing to apologise for. Being tonally correct means conceding some ground. And it means showing compassion.
Show some compassion
It might not have got him off the rap entirely, but imagine how much better it would’ve been had Andrew felt able to acknowledge right at the start of the interview that he appreciated his discomfort was nothing compared to the pain and suffering felt by the victims of sexual abuse. That he couldn’t begin to imagine how awful that would be. That by speaking he wasn’t in any way, shape or form trying to belittle or undermine those who’d experienced it.
And being truly compassionate extends beyond victims to perpetrators. So Andrew should next have nodded to the anguish that led his friend, Jeffrey Epstein, to take his own life and to the grief felt by the financier’s close friends and family.
Concede some ground
When you’re under attack defending every inch of ground seems instinctively like the right thing to do. It rarely is. In military metaphors and media interviews if the ground you’re on is dodgy then pull back to safer ground. To a position that is easier to defend. And concede it voluntarily. Don’t be forced to retreat. Because otherwise there’ll be casualties. A bloodied reputation. What Andrew should have said more plainly than he did, is something like this:
“I was a poor judge of character. With hindsight I was wrong to count on him as a friend. Again with hindsight, I was wrong to see him (as we often see our friends however badly chosen) through rose-tinted spectacles. And out of misguided loyalty I was wrong not to have ended that friendship much sooner.”
Note the number of wrongs in the preceding paragraph. I accept, of course, that three wrongs don’t make a proverbial right. But repeating a point at least that many times reinforces it and prepares the ground tonally for the next step…
Now because you’ve conceded you were wrong, wrong, wrong you can say you’re sorry, sorry, sorry reinforcing that point in a similar fashion. You’re sorry that while you personally saw nothing untoward, the hugely disturbing fact remains Epstein abused girls and young women. You’re sorry that you were such a poor judge of character (whilst adding that abusers go to great lengths to hide their behaviour from those around them). You’re sorry that you didn’t end the friendship sooner. Sorry that by association the royal family has been tarnished. Sorry, especially, that your own daughters have been affected. Sorry that you haven’t on this occasion upheld the extremely high standards demanded of royals.
Incidentally, you should never ask for pity – certainly not explicitly. Show pity for others and others, if they think you deserve it, will show pity for you. Pity has to be earned. And while we’re on the subject of pity, in crisis communications (and this certainly qualifies as that) pity is one of the three Ps. The other two are praise and promise. So Andrew might also have added his praise for the hard work and diligence of those investigating Epstein’s crimes and promised to do all he can to assist those inquiries. Which begs a follow up question (and did from Emily Maitlis): so you’d be happy to travel to the US and speak to the FBI if necessary? To which there is but one short response: “Yes, of course. I want to help and I have nothing to hide.”
Unless you do. In which case you’ve got to be a great liar. Hope there’s no smoking gun. Or exercise your right to remain silent. Which brings us right back to where we started and the decision to do the interview in the first place. We’re led to believe Andrew’s spin doctor resigned after just a few weeks in the role because his advice to the prince was to take the fifth as the Americans might say.
So what would my advice have been? If I thought the prince could manage the interview process as I’ve outlined above and proved he could do it during some realistic rehearsals (with me playing the role of Maitlas) then I’d have told him to ask mum. If he couldn’t, then I’d have told him to keep mum. As it is, he didn’t seek my help and, like I said, I’m a republican so there’ll be two heads on pikes outside Buckingham Palace: mine and his. My Aunty Dee always said I looked a bit like him and we’re about the same age. So if you’re passing I’ll be the one mouthing Two Princes by the Spin Doctors.
I ain’t got no future or a family tree But I know what a prince and lover ought to be
The Spin Doctors – Two Princes
Richard Uridge facilitates ACM Training’s media and communications workshops.
When even the usually pro-Johnson Daily Mail joins the now deafening calls for our wannabe Prime Minister to say something about that row, the MP and his advisors will know that saying nothing is no longer an option. Not that it ever was in my view. Questions, however intrusive, have to be dealt with. Because until they’re dealt with it’s nigh on impossible to move on.
But there’s a world of difference between dealing with questions and answering them. And it’s in this gap that if I was coaching the MP I’d seek to find some wriggle room to do six things:
Say thank you.
Offer some context.
Concede some ground.
Make a promise.
Sound contrite (but without completely losing the BoJo mojo – whatever that is).
So here’s what Boris should’ve said:
“The police were quickly assured that this was nothing more than a full and frank but otherwise run-of-the-mill exchange of views between two colourful adults.
“And I would like to reassure you in turn that our only sin was to fail to realise that we were discussing matters – yes animatedly and at the end of a stressful week – a little louder than we’d realised and a little louder than is sensible with thin walls and open windows.
“Now I don’t mean to make light of matters but this was nothing more than one of those ding dongs that many, many couples have when they let off steam. To read anything more into this whole affair, to impugn my character and, more importantly, to impugn Carrie’s character is plain wrong. So too is questioning the motives of our neighbours. They did what is right and I commend them for it. To condemn them is again plain wrong.
“I apologise for having drawn them and you all into this. In most circumstances this kind of lovers tiff would be forgotten with the kiss and make up. But I accept that running for PM is not most circumstances and you have a right – up to a point – to inquire into my private life. That’s why I’ve said what I’ve said today. I shall be saying no more on the matter if for no other reason than to give poor Carrie a break. She and I both agree that there are very many more important matters which we should be discussing and it would be a crying shame if those issues weren’t properly aired because the two of us had aired our difference of opinion so vocally.
“So forgive me if I move on.“
I call this my deal with and move on approach. Compare this to the one he tried which might loosely be called the ignore and move on technique. It rarely works except where the questions you’re ignoring are trivial and the audience agrees they’re trivial and sides with you instead of the journalists asking such trivia.
People are getting angrier. Or certainly less reasonable. That’s what our clients are telling us as we travel across Britain delivering our dealing with difficult people training. So why? In the local government sector (and others) it’s probably linked to a decade of austerity which has led to services being reduced or withdrawn altogether and service users getting frustrated as a result. It’s also down, I’d suggest, to the general coarsening of public discourse fuelled, if not sparked, by Brexit. People hear our so-called leaders slinging insults at one another across the floor of the House of Commons and elsewhere and they, quite understandably, follow suit. After all that’s how leadership works isn’t it? Leaders lead. The rest of us follow. Leading by bad example as it were.
Social media hasn’t helped either. Facebook, Twitter et al have led us to believe (wrongly) that we can get pretty much instant gratification. Instant likes. Instant thumbs ups. Instant responses to our problems. But so many sectors don’t run at the same dizzying speed. Complain on Twitter about your local authority in just seconds, then sit back and watch your blood pressure rise as the complaint takes days, weeks or even months to resolve.
All of which means there are more difficult people to deal with numerically and there are more difficult people to deal with behaviourally. So pity the poor people at the other end of the line getting sworn at, threatened and generally mistreated.
And I should add that frustration doesn’t just lead to anger. Sometimes it leads to tears. Callers are crying out for help – literally. Both, in their different ways, are hugely challenging for call handlers who, if they’re not managed properly, can suffer what’s called vicarious traumatisation a result. Heck, it can even lead to mental health issues if not properly addressed. Sad, mad and bad callers lead potentially to sad, mad and bad call handlers!
At ACM Training we equip call handlers with a range of tools to deal with difficult people and challenging behaviour. And we help them deal with the impact it can have on them personally and professionally so they can avoid the attendant stress and potential burnout. Here’s a list of call handling tips we drew up with the help of delegates who attended a series of short workshops at a local authority in the North West of England.
Don’t interrupt them in full flow – it’ll only make matters worse.
Remember angry callers are a bit like fireworks – they’ll fizzle out eventually and that’s the time to interject.
Fireworks can flare up again.
Try to establish why they are angry – by listening carefully and asking the right questions
Agree with them – it can defuse an awkward situation, even if you only agree with a narrow part of what they’re saying.
Say sorry – it costs nothing and, phrased carefully, isn’t an admission of guilt or wrongdoing.
Concede some ground or stand together on the common ground to avoid shouting across the gulf of your differences.
Don’t state the obvious – it antagonises angry callers.
Don’t promise the undeliverable in the hope that it’ll satisfy them – they’ll see through your ruse.
Make the most of what you can offer.
Listen. You’ve got two ears and one mouth – use them in about that proportion!
Interject regularly with little noises (uh, oh, I see, yes etc) to let them know you’re still listening.
Remember their anger may be perfectly reasonable in the circumstances.
Try not to take it personally – it’s not you they’re angry with but the situation or even themselves.
Keep your eye on the bigger picture – they may have or need vital information.
Set ground rules as soon as you reasonably can to help reduce/manage expectation and heighten appreciation.
Empathise by trying to picture yourself in their situation.
Sweet reason – try explaining why you need what you need from them or why you can’t help.
Perspective – help them see the bigger picture and that in the scheme of things their circumstances aren’t so bad after all (assuming they aren’t!).
Don’t tell them to calm down – it’ll probably have the opposite effect.
Instead get them to do something practical – in concentrating on the task in hand they’ll be diverted from their anger which often springs from a feeling of impotence and helplessness.
Remain calm yourself (or at the very least try to sound calm). If you respond to anger with anger the call will quickly descend in a downward spiral. Speak deliberately and clearly (not too slow because it can be read as patronising) and you’ll find there’s a chance they’ll mirror your demeanour and calm down themselves.
Abusive or threatening calls should not and are not tolerated in everyday call handling and it is perfectly acceptable to terminate such a call if the abuse continues after an initial warning. However, in a genuine emergency there may need to be more flexibility and tolerance.
Avoid burn out by taking frequent breaks and have a chance to offload any personal stress onto colleagues and/or supervisors. Remember a problem shared really is a problem halved.
In May 1998 ACM Training’s sister company, ACP Television, filmed Bill Clinton arriving for the G8 Summit in Birmingham. The Lewinsky affair from a few years earlier was still dogging the US President. So much so that there was huge speculation surrounding the arrival of the First Lady separately aboard Air Force 2. So much so that the media were keen to secure pictures of Clinton outside the Swallow Hotel (use your imagination) where he stayed for the duration of the conference not far away at the ICC. And we thought he was a controversial figure!
So seeing Donald Trump touchdown at Stansted for his rather more controversial UK visit made us think what a difference 21 years makes. And gave us a great excuse to delve into the company archives. What we knew then but were too polite to say was that Boris arrived smelling heavily of drink (no, not that Boris, the Russian President Boris Yeltsin). What we also knew was that there was a mad scramble to find any two star fuel for Yeltsin’s Communist-era ZiL limousine and that the motorcycle outriders from West Midlands Police were convinced the car wouldn’t make it to the city centre giving them a massive security headache.
But what we didn’t know then was that our dealing with difficult people suite of courses would all these years later be our best-sellers. So for old times’ sake and in the spirit of entente cordiale we’re offering Trump (and his entourage) 10% off any of our difficult people sessions such as managing difficult teams, handling awkward conversations and tackling trade wars (actually we made up that last one). We’re convinced they’ll make an enormous contribution to world peace. And office peace for that matter. Which is why we’ve decided to extend the offer to non-Trump delegates like you. To secure your discount simply enter #TrumpUKVisit in the promotional code box when you make your next booking. But hurry – the offer ends seven days after Trump leaves UK territory.
Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley probably didn’t have the best of breaks. He’s the Sussex police officer who admitted in an interview just before Christmas that there may not have been a drone at all – despite the numerous reported sightings that brought Gatwick Airport to a standstill over two days, disrupted 1,000 flights and affected 140,000 passengers.
Following a hastily arranged conference call with Government ministers, Tingley’s remark was explained away as “poor communications.” His press office issued a clarification. And then his boss, Sussex Chief Constable Giles York, appeared to contradict him, stating on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I am absolutely certain a drone was flying throughout the period the airport was closed.”
Giles went on to say that his officer “was trying to describe an investigative approach, that asks ‘how can we prove the presence of the drone in the first place?’” But he conceded Tingley’s remark had “amplified the chaos” surrounding the incident.
So what can be learned from the curious incident of the drone which, not unlike Schrödinger’s Cat, appears simultaneously to have been both present and not present? Here’s my analysis of the original exchange on BBC News and three lessons for all of us involved in media, PR and communications. Once you’ve had a look a what I have to say please subscribe to our blog and the ACM Training YouTube channel (if you haven’t already).
So what should the Detective Chief Super have said? I’ll be making a suggestion or two in the next post.
The old proverb needs rewriting. It should read distraction is the thief of time. Because since the saying was penned by the poet, Edward Young, in the 18th century, distractions have grown to become the bigger criminal. In fact, I’d argue they’re now the biggest crook of all when it comes to time wasting. Way ahead of not keeping a to do list, multi-tasking and failing to prioritise.
Young wasn’t distracted by smart phones when he was writing Night Thoughts where the line first appeared. He felt no uncontrollable Pavlovian urge to scan news websites every time he heard a corny jingle. Wasn’t constantly checking his social media accounts for thumbs and hearts. Or snowed under drifts of non-urgent emails. His was a simpler life. Shorter I’ll grant you. But the price we pay for progress – for literally living longer – is that we waste more and more of that extra time on pointless, frivolous and unproductive tasks. Little wonder we’re becoming less and less efficient.
Some studies reckon we waste up to two hours a day at work by being distracted. I’d argue that in some organisations that’s a conservative estimate. Indeed, the Institute for Public Policy Research in it’s report Prosperity and Justice: a plan for the new economy, highlights the fact that productivity in the UK is 13% lower than in other G7 countries. But whatever’s being lost why waste the most precious commodity of all? So if you’re serious about getting back some of that invaluable time, to become more efficient, more productive, then learning how to manage distractions and interruptions is a really important part of time management. And as a consequence I can say, without a hint of irony, that it’s something delegates spend a fair bit of time on in my time management workshops at ACM Training.
So if you haven’t got the time to attend (and, of course, I think you should make the time) here are my top five tips for managing distractions:
Recognise what’s truly distracting you in the first place by listing the source of the distraction every time you’re distracted over, say, a period of a week. The distractions are very likely to be digital – text, email and social media pop ups for example. But don’t forget to list the analogue too – a noisy office, and open door, a room with a view…
Switch off, shut out or turn your back on those distractions that you can reasonably do so to. In digital terms that means going into your phone, tablet or computer settings (and preferably all three because of multi-screening) and switching off audio and visual notifications. Better still, turn off the phone entirely. In analogue terms it might mean closing your office door and putting up an old-fashioned do not disturb sign or rearranging the office furniture so that you’re not endlessly daydreaming over the view from the window.
Limit those distractions that are genuinely unavoidable. For example, you may be on call and, therefore, unable to switch off your phone. You can always turn it face down to avoid visual alerts but still hear the ring (generally we’re more easily distracted by vision than by sound). Can you limit email receives to once an hour or even less frequently? The always on, always available attitude may make us feel important but it’s rarely necessary in most workplace settings.
Take regular breaks. If you’re hungry or tired, getting deep vein thrombosis from sitting still for too long or out of breath from rushing about too much take it easy, if only for five minutes. Abraham Maslow was right – we simply can’t ignore our physiological needs and the harder we try to ignore them the more distracted by them we are. If you try concentrating on a really important task on an empty stomach (and, therefore, an energy-deprived brain) I can guarantee you’ll be distracted. So stop. And during your break by all means be distracted momentarily by all those things you’ve listed in point one. Think of it as your reward. I call it compartmentalising. You have a big compartment for work. You have a smaller one for distractions. Not one big noisy space where they all compete for your attention. Because the distractions win pretty much every time. They’ve been designed that way. Attractive distractions if I can coin another phrase.
Schedule the most important stuff for times when you’re least likely to be distracted. That might be early mornings before everybody else has got to work (or got up if you work from home). Or it might be in the evening when everyone else has gone home (or to bed). I’m a big believer in handheld technology freeing us from the constraints – and distractions – of the desk or office. Sitting in the corner of a coffee shop where nobody disturbs you because nobody knows you. Pecking away at your tablet screen to finish that annual report. Or blog post. Now how about a slice of cake (see point 4) or, better still, a bag of nuts?
I should add that these points refer mainly to what could loosely be called external, physical distractions. But, of course, we can also be mightily distracted by the internal, mental and emotional stuff swirling around in our heads and hearts. I’ll make dealing with these the subject of a separate post in this occasional series, Time Management for Time Wasters. If I can find the time!