Chocolate Pillow | Dealing with complaints: The Aggressive Complainer
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Dealing with complaints: The Aggressive Complainer

25 Nov Dealing with complaints: The Aggressive Complainer

I have already talked about Silent, Professional and Social Complainers, and now I get in to the territory of every employees nightmare – the Aggressive Complainer.

An Aggressive Complainer is not all fists and fights as you may think – they can also be ‘Passive Aggressive’ or have ‘Frustration-Aggression’ which present in different ways:

  • Passive Aggressive behaviour manifests in many different ways; when dealing with complaints this is commonly displayed as underhanded (bitchy) comments about people or events, deliberate attempts to undermine you and your authority (such as framing a statement in such a way that you cannot disagree,  and then questioning whether you agree or not), or even self-pity.
  • Frustration-Aggression is the most dangerous aggression as it is borne out of ‘not getting your own way’ – this is commonly the type of emotion that causes people to hit out and ‘do something you may regret later’.  Commonly this is confused with anger.

Basic aggression is a primal instinct (usually displayed as Frustration-Aggression), and is a way of asserting dominance – I should note here that there is a difference between anger and aggression.  Anger is the emotional response to the gap between wanting something and not being able to achieve it and is usually ‘past-focused’ instead of being ‘in the now’.  It is also a response to being cornered or blocked from something, and is a non-learned behaviour that everyone is born with.  Aggression is the emotional assertion of your own status and is a learned behaviour – if you are brought up by parents who use aggression to attain their desires, then (it is believed) you are likely to be more aggressive as an adult and then use aggression to coerce others to your desires.

Knowing this, you need to differentiate between someone being angry and someone being aggressive.  Aggressive complainers make threats, make demands and often present a ‘my way or no way’ choice.  They can stray in to anger but this is very rare.  Anger is about not being able to formulate a response, causing you to ‘act out’ to get your own way in the most primal of ways known, whereas aggression is about being able to formulate a response and use a threat of anger to dominate your opponent.

There is no such thing as an angry complainer!  Sound weird?  Think you have hundreds of instances whereby people have been angry complainers?  Think again!  Anger is primal – it is focused at someone or something.  Someone can only be angry about something or someone, and can be aggressive towards them.  An angry complainer does not exist because anger is unfocused (or is only focused at one person/object as is the phrase ‘blinded by anger’) – complaints do not work this way and an angry complainer soon becomes an aggressive one once the arguments formulate and make sense.  Anger is short-lived and cannot be sustained.

Aggressive complainers may hit out, they may scream, shout, even throw things or break them, or they may be extremely nice and pleasant but just very nasty about everything!   A lot of aggressive complainers will do one of two things:

  • Convert anger to aggression – i.e. something makes them angry (emotional response), so they present aggression.
  • Feign aggression – use an aggressive stance (being consciously aware they are doing so) in order to attain a higher dominance and thereby achieve their goals.

The way to deal with any Aggressive Complainer is actually to ‘kill it with kindness’.  Aggression is a behaviour, and in human nature, behaviours will be mirrored (no matter how hard you try not to) – remaining calm, being polite, offering apologies and assurances are often enough to defuse a situation fairly quickly.  Aggression cannot be sustained if it is not mirrored – think of the following scenarios:

  • 2 men fighting.  Both are arguing over the same thing and each wants to be dominant.  The situation is aggression vs aggression – the aggression is mirrored between people allowing it to build, until one of the people feels so blocked in to a corner that anger manifests as a ‘fight’ response to the situation.
  • 2 men fighting.  One quickly accepts the others point of view and calmly talks through the situation – the second man would find it very difficult to sustain aggressive behaviour!

These scenarios do rely on a process of logic and correct interpretation of body language etc – someone who is drunk or similar would take more work to calm down than someone who is sober as the alcohol would mean that any behaviours could be misinterpreted (open body language could be seen as aggressive).

Avoid aggressive complainers being able to dehumanise you (this is where they deprive you of human qualities by making you ‘just an employee’ or similar) – do this by using words linked to emotions and feelings; use phrases such as ‘I understand’ or ‘I see what you mean’, say you are sorry and that you want to make them happy, tell them you understand their annoyance, frustration or even that you can see how a situation would make them angry.

Aggressive Complainers are not that difficult to deal with – usually some breathing space, time to calm down and a lot of understanding, will go a long way to make things better!  Utilise all your cliched customer handling training to it’s best advantage.  Remember that the golden rule here is to ‘Always Back Down!’ – never challenge, confront or openly disagree (although you can question events), and always let the complainer believe they are in control.  It will be hard, but by ‘letting them win’ on a psychological level (not necessarily giving them everything they want!) you are providing no reason for them to maintain an aggressive stance!

Aggression can be scary, but be calm, be nice, back down, and you will soon find that roaring lion turns in to a pretty pussy cat!

Next in the series I will talk about:

  • Empathetic Complainers – everything is understandable and forgivable, they appreciate how hard you work!
  • Assertive Complainers – they will have what they want, and you cannot say otherwise… or can you?!
  • Compensatory Complainers – everything is perfect as long as they get a refund!
Matt Shiells-Jones

Husband, Author, Hotel Manager and ambitious 'old cat lady'

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