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Crew Coach: De-escalation skills crucial when confronted by angry clients

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Crew Coach: by Capt. Rob Gannon

Sometimes when working with or just dealing with other people, we encounter the annoyed, disappointed, possibly going-off-the rails client or charter guest. How we react to these challenges can result in either smooth sailing ahead or a shipwreck where major damage may have been done and repairs could be costly.

If you’ve been in the service business for a while, it’s bound to happen. Someone is unhappy with the service or product, and their anger and frustration is starting to boil over. This can come out, unfortunately, in a manner that is disrespectful and rude to the one on the receiving end of the vitriol. It can be tough in this moment to remain centered and calm and not be personally offended, but we must. Returning the fire is not going to work out very well.

We must de-escalate, which is really kind of an art form and, as with most skills, it can take some practice to become comfortable and effective with it in real time. I know I have gotten much better with these situations over time. But I was also interested in getting better at it, and that’s important. I believe if we are truly aware of where we are with a skill and really have an interest in improving, we can. A willingness and  true desire to work on a particular piece of ourselves is a powerful force.

I recently had an encounter that was the impetus for this column. These days I’m pretty much retired from the term charter end of yachting, but I still captain day charters and excursions,  and also work as a personal coach. Sometimes the coach training and experience can cross paths with the captain life. In my role as captain for an eco-tour vessel, usually things are pretty easygoing and undramatic. This recent encounter spiced things up a bit.

I was walking up the dock from my vessel when I was approached by an obviously agitated woman. In a loud and annoyed tone, she asked me if I was the guy running the boat. When I replied I was, she launched into a tirade about her encounter with the woman working behind the ticket counter. In a pretty over-the-top, agitated rant, she railed about why she couldn’t get on the boat when we had no other customers for that trip. I started to explain the company policy about a two-adult minimum and that she was 10 minutes late for the trip, when she cut me off and told me she went through all this with the woman inside.

Then, what really sent her off came out. She claimed the woman at the ticket counter cursed at her and told her to get out of the store. Sensing she had a calm empathetic ear, she then started going into how stressed she was in her life at the time and how this was just what she didn’t need that day. I let her vent, then took the opportunity to change the intensity and flow of the conversation.

I agreed she should not be cursed at and said I understood her frustrations. I introduced myself and asked what her name was. I literally could feel the shift happening. Sara and I had first names for each other. We started talking to each other like two respectful humans trying to relate. She was grateful to be heard and understood. At the end of our encounter, she thanked me for my listening and my kindness, and then she hugged me. I can feel the emotion of it even as I write this. It felt good to us both.

I tell this story not to pat myself on the back – over the years, I’ve certainly had encounters that did not go nearly as well – but to give an example of how if you work at this, you can get better at it.

I know sometimes people can get very mean and personal in their agitated state, but we can’t be taken there along with them. As professionals dealing with the public – and sometimes the high-end demanding public – we have to remain centered and present when dealing with an agitated client or charter guest. Try to de-escalate and show a desire to make things better, and things will usually be just fine.

Enjoy the voyage.

Capt. Rob Gannon is a 30-year licensed captain and certified life and wellness coach (yachtcrewcoach.com). Comments are welcome below.

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