Having tough conversations with disgruntled travelers is a given in the resort and recreation industry. We’ve all seen vacationer’s lose control. In fact, we may have done it. We’re in the middle of a pleasant vacation, something goes wrong and we turn ugly. After all, we’re supposed to be having fun—not waiting for a counter person who is popping his gum while yakking with a friend on the phone about last night’s hot date, or being talked down to by a snippy concierge, or fishing a hair out of a chocolate mousse. (“Is this a moose hair?” you wonder). Whatever the problem, your current situation doesn’t stand up to your opinion of what should be going on when we’re paying a king’s ransom to be pampered—or at least to not be annoyed. Consequently, you feel perfectly justified in laying into the nearest staff member—not unlike a jackal tearing into a fallen wildebeest. Sure, you’ve turned ugly, but, hey, it’s for “a good reason.”

For those of you who have been on the receiving end of such nasty outbursts you know from first-hand experience that everyone within earshot of an abusive conversation ends up far worse for the wear. And when you’re the actual target of the verbal onslaught, it can be nearly unbearable. You’re doing your best to be professional and attentive and the client is doing his or her best to be insulting and abusive—“justified” or not. “Where’s the justice in this?” you muse to yourself as you try to remember the part in your job description that suggests that it’s your job to stand there and take it. Maybe it’s in the fine print.

Of course, knowing exactly how to deal with people who are upset (yourself included) would help a great deal. If you knew what to say and how to say it, in a way that encourages the person to deal with the problem without feeling the need to scream at you, so much the better.

What do people usually do? So, what’s a person to do when things turn ugly? To answer this question, let’s start with the status quo. How do most people react when faced with an angry customer? To get a feel for the common response, stop by your local airport when the weather has turned nasty and watch as people step up to the counter and become verbally abusive. Also watch as trained professionals attempt to deal with the awkward situation.

Since the gate agents have been trained not to lose control, you won’t see what most of us do when confronted—respond in kind. Someone takes a verbal shot at you, your adrenaline kicks in, and it’s not long until you’re upset. Or perhaps you realize that open hostility is neither acceptable or effective, so you bite your tongue and exude bad will while giving a stare that could drop a charging rhinoceros. In either case, you’re not letting the other person roll over you. That’s what you’re body is trained to do when it falls under attack—avoid being crushed. You prepare to either take flight, or fight. Of course, responding to anger with anger (either subtle or obvious) only makes matters worse. So here’s the short and obvious take away. When others become upset, turn angry, and start piling on the abuse, don’t respond in kind.

Now, the typical highly-trained gate agent knows not to respond in kind, cuts off thousands of years of genetic programming by ignoring their adrenaline, smiles calmly, and tells the passenger why he won’t be flying to Cleveland this evening and that, to be honest, his getting angry isn’t helping him get there any faster. If the agent is particularly clever, he or she will suggest that anger has no impact on the weather system, which is the actual problem. Yelling at an innocent employee does little to force the low-pressure system off to the North.

This cutting sarcasm, of course, inflames the passenger even more, but by keeping his or her nasty response subtle the agent maintains plausible deniability—“Hey, I didn’t become abusive, I merely pointed out the truth.” But the goal shouldn’t be to maintain plausible deniability. The goal should be first to diffuse the anger and second to fix the problem. So, a word to the wise, when others get upset, don’t sarcastically make fun of them for being out of control.

While we’re on the subject of what not to do, avoid the following response—one that many leaders use when dealing with angry employees. “I can you see you’re really upset over the latest change in benefits. I tell you what, here’s a dollar, why don’t you go buy a cup of coffee, calm down, and return when you’re in a better position to have a civil conversation.” This has the same calming effect as throwing gasoline on a smoldering fire. It comes off as extremely patronizing because, at heart, it is. What you’re actually saying is: “You’re acting like a child throwing a temper tantrum, so I’m giving you a timeout and sending you to your bedroom. Once you can act like an adult you can return and continue the conversation.” This particular ploy also has the advantage of appearing harmless since you haven’t become hostile or angry, but it’s so incredibly patronizing that it often makes matters far worse. When others become upset, don’t talk down to them.

Here’s another clever, subtle, and ineffective method you often see in action. In order to divert the person’s anger, the person who has fallen under attack desperately tries to distract the attacker by pointing out a small flaw in the details.

“I can’t believe that the bill came to $200! Your summer brochure said it would be $95!”

“You’re wrong. First of all, it was the fall brochure, and second, it suggested that it would be $99.95.”

Ah yes, those clarifications of irrelevant minutia will really get to the heart of the problem and diffuse the anger. Right. When others are angry, don’t try to divert them by pointing out small flaws in their argument.

And now for one final mistake, albeit subtle and more common than dirt. When others leap on you, more often than not they’re wrong about what has just happened—at least partially wrong or missing important information. Unless you’re from outer space, you’ll feel compelled to jump right into a lengthy explanation of the facts. “They’re missing this data point,” you think to yourself and you plunge in with the sincere goal of setting the record straight. Now, eventually you’ll need to do just this. But not as a starting point. When others are under the influence of chemicals that are turning them into illogical ogres, it’s not smart to jump right into the facts.

It’s important to know what not to do because, believe it or not, people who are on their best behavior often respond with the calm but annoying strategies we’ve just discussed. They know better than to lose control or respond in kind, and end up calmly and in a “professional tone” alienating an already upset client or employee with their “Look at me I’m the adult here” response.

Now, why would people (particularly those who have been trained) act so poorly? Because they don’t know what else to do. Not many people handle these situations in the best possible way, so people haven’t exactly been exposed to dozens of healthy role models and they’re trying to come up with a rather complicated response while on the fly and under attack. The fact that people don’t end up in a shouting match is typically viewed as a victory. Simply avoiding a major debacle is a plus. But we should expect more, and will be able to actually achieve more, if we do know what to do.

Show your concern. When people are under the influence of adrenaline, you need to start by letting them know that their plight, frustration, misfortune, or disappointment has you concerned. They want you to be concerned. They expect you to be concerned. In fact, if you act too calm, logical, and Spock-like, it only sends the message that either you don’t really care, or that they are acting hysterical. This, of course, only makes matters worse.

Concern is best expressed in our tone, facial expression, and nonverbal actions and doesn’t necessarily have to be spoken in words. When your young child comes in with a boo-boo, you show concern. We’ve all done it. It’s heartfelt and natural. If we’re afraid to look emotional at work and end up putting on a calm or stern face, we’ve missed the whole point of the emotional outburst in the first place. So, when someone is hurting, give in your intuition and show your concern.

Now, a word to the wise. It can be difficult to muster up genuine concern when others turn hostile or even abusive. Your feelings can turn from empathy to disdain in a heartbeat. At this moment, showing your feelings only gets you into trouble. To deal with your own hostile reaction, ask yourself some important questions. “What horrible thing has happened, or do they think has happened, to them?” “What is causing them to act this way?” Best yet, ask: “Why would a decent, reasonable, and rational person act this way?” By framing the question in a way that generates empathy and curiosity, you cut off your natural tendency to assume the worst—“What’s wrong with them and why are they trying to make my life miserable?” So, to deal with your own response, and generate genuine concern, put yourself in others’ shoes and ask a “humanizing” question. Turn them from demons into humans by asking why a decent person would be doing what they’re doing.

Once you’ve managed to help yourself understand others’ situations, it’s okay to say you’re sorry or feel bad or that you understand why the other person is upset. You’ll look, act, and be sincere.

Demonstrate understanding. Once you’ve genuinely shown that you care about others’ concerns, it’s now safe to get to the details of the problem. This doesn’t mean that you supply them with the correct information, but that you first find out what they are thinking. This calls for active listening. To ensure that you understand what others are saying, to make it safe for them to say more, and to let them know that you’re doing your best to understand their problem, ask, mirror, paraphrase, and prime.

Ask—Let people know that you want to hear their point of view. Ask for it. Tell them that you’re interested in knowing exactly what happened.

Mirror—Sometimes people are quietly seething rather than yelling at you. They’re upset, but rather than mess with you, they’ll simply vote with their feet—they’ll walk out and they won’t come back. To help encourage others to express their candid views, suggest that they seem upset or concerned. By holding a mirror up to them—showing them what their nonverbals are saying—you let them know that you think they may be upset, but because you’re not getting snippy or defensive, it’s okay to talk about the source of their strong emotion.

Paraphrase—to ensure that you’ve grasped what others have said, restate their position—only in your own words. Don’t mindlessly parrot the exact words or toss them back mechanically. Thoughtfully restate what you think they’re saying and ask if you have it right. Let them know that you’re trying to understand them.

Prime—Sometimes it can help encourage others to speak candidly if you take your best guess at why they are upset. They are quietly fuming and offering up no details, but you have a good guess as to what set them off in the first place. “Is there something about the service that has you concerned? If so, we’d really like to hear about it.” Don’t take a guess if you don’t have one, but if it’s pretty obvious to you, ask them if such and such has them concerned. Do this without acting defensive, and see if it makes it safe for them to talk.

Take action. You’re now to the point where you do something to deal with the problem. By showing your concern and actively listening to the other person’s point of view, you’ve earned the right to speak or take action. You’ve fought your natural tendency to strike back, avoided jumping in with an explanation, helped the other person take charge of his or her own emotions, and are now in a position to have an honest discussion. If the person has a legitimate complaint, rectify the problem. If you don’t have authority to do so, find someone who does. If it’s against policy or tradition to request what they want, turn the problem over to someone who may have the authority to make an exception or even change the rule.

If the other person is wrong, don’t start by saying that he or she is wrong. Start by agreeing with the parts you can agree with. More often than not, this requires you to start with their views, right or wrong, and why this particular viewpoint would make a person upset. “I can see why you’re upset. You thought that you would receive back a partial payment if the weather turned bad and then you didn’t get any money back. That felt like a violation of our promise. Is that right?” Others now know that you understand their view and don’t think they’re fools for holding it.

Now you’ve earned the right to explain the facts, as you know them. “The reason we didn’t send you a partial payment is because you purchased the bargain plan, and as you can see here in the contract, there is no provision for…” Others may not exactly be pleased to learn that their anger wasn’t really justified or that they aren’t going to get what they want, but they aren’t likely to continue to act abusively as long as you continue to treat them with dignity and respect.

In summary. When customers or clients become angry, our natural tendencies usually get us in trouble. We respond in kind, run for cover, or silently fume. None of these tactics work. Even if we are calm and collected, as adrenaline rushes through our clients’ veins, the people we’re trying to serve, even surprise and delight, are in no position to hold a rational discussion—no matter our own feelings. So, don’t jump to the facts. Instead, help others dissipate their anger by showing your concern and demonstrating that you understand their view. Allow your feelings of empathy to bubble to the surface.

If you yourself are starting to become miffed or disgusted, take charge of your own emotions by asking why a decent, reasonable, and rational person would be acting and feeling this way. Find a way to empathize and then let the customer know that you want them to be satisfied with the product or service. Probe for the details of what went wrong. Listen actively. Paraphrase, mirror, and prime where necessary. Keep at it until the other person knows that you care and understand. Then and only then move to the specifics of the problem and rectify it as quickly as possible.

Will this always work? No. In fact, if others really lose control and step over the line from hostility to actual verbal abuse, inappropriate language, and even threats, remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible and turn the problem over to your HR specialists or even security. Never stand in the way of danger.

The good news is that most of the time people are merely upset. They won’t become dangerous. They need to believe that you care, that you understand, and that you’re going to do something to solve the problem. That’s it. Continually take actions to help people dissipate their anger and you’ll routinely transform awkward situations that throw most people into a tizzy into healthy resolutions that you handle with relative ease. Oh yes, and you’ll also be part of a rather elite group of people who know exactly what to do in the face of anger. And that would be a good thing.