Tuesday, September 04, 2012

How to Cope and Overcome Irritated and Irritating Students

Here are four ways guaranteed to help make irritating students less irritated and thus easier to help.

1. Smiling but do not overdo it. There are psychological and physical values to smiling at an irritated student. (Actually we should smile at everyone and even when there is no one there.) Smiling affects mirror neurons in the limbic system which is in the most primitive part of the brain. This is where the fight or flight response takes place. To keep it simple, when we smile, we tell another person that we do not plan to attack. The smile also turns mirror neurons on in the other person. They reflect the smile within the person to affect emotions that start to tell the person to relax and feel happier. 

However when one person is angry and the other smiles too strongly, that can possibly trigger a negative response. An emotional reflection that “this other person is too happy while I am angry. Is that smile mocking me?” A fun if overdone example of this can be seen in a sequence from the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Steve Martin has been dropped off by a car rental company at a car that is not there. He has to walk back to the counter through snow, slush and moving airplanes. When he gets there, the receptionist is on the phone having an inane Thanksgiving dinner planning session with someone. 

The combination of the no car and then her breaking most every customer service rule by making Steve Martin wait while she giggles on inflames him. When she finally gets off the phone, she turns to martin with an exaggerated, phony smile on her face. She asks the usual but wrong question” Welcome to Marathon, May I help you?’ His response “You can start by wiping that f’---ing dumb ass smile off your f---ing rosy cheeks”.

A too energetic and/or faked smile will be like the proverbial red flag in front of an angry bull. It’ll just make the student charge. A smile is correct and called for but it needs to be an empathetic one. A simple, small smile that says “I see you’re upset and I WILL try to help.” The smile you would use with one of your children with a problem. Students are someone’s children and will respond to this smile.

2. Give and Name- Get a Name This is a technique that asks you to do exactly what it says. You provide an irritated student your name and ask her his or hers. “Hi. I’m ________. And you are?” When you exchange names you create a small community of people who know one another. That makes it less likely the irritation will be brought into the discussion. Remember, the student is not irritated at you but the institution. The anonymous amorphous “COLLEGE”. It is also harder for a student to be angry at someone her or she knows by name.

3. Apologize This is a lesson that we learned from people like Captain Kangaroo on TV as discussed in much greater length in the chapter How To’s: Good Morning Captain” in The Power of Retention. Captain Kangaroo taught us to use manners and be polite. One of the things we could learn is how to simply say “I’m sorry”. If for example, he thought Bunny Rabbit had played yet another trick but he was wrong, he would simply say “I’m sorry I thought it was you Bunny Rabbit. I was wrong.”

A simple statement of apology to a student can go a long way even if you are not at fault. Even if you had nothing to do with the situation. Often what the student is looking for is to have someone recognize that he or she is upset and may not be to blame. To hear someone accept the situation with a simple apology rather than turfing him to the next office can work wonders.

The apology does not have to be an acceptance of error or wrong either. Greeting an irritated student with “I see you are upset. I’m sorry for whatever caused it. How may I help you?” Or “Gee, I’m sorry something has caused you to be upset…” or “I’m sorry if it’s something someone at the school did to get you upset….”

The irritated student will not be expecting someone to accept any level of possible accountability. By saying sorry, you sort of accept some accountability not for you but for the student’s being upset. You are not admitting guilt or a wrong has been committed if you say “sorry you have been made so upset”. But you will be recognizing the student is emotionally stressed and the apology will start to lower the stress levels and in turn the resultant anger.

Sometimes the student’s response will surprise you. It may range from “well thanks, but you didn’t do it” to “about d—n time someone realized I was upset. Thank you.”

4. Compliments This might strike you as the most odd thing you’ve read but believe me it works. When a student is approaching you, your desk or window in an irritated state one thing you want to do is to interrupt the flow of adrenalin flowing through the body that reinforces the anger. The adrenalin affects the limbic system’s fight or flight decision. The hormone pushes blood into the muscles to prepare for a fight or flight. The next set of signals the limbic system receives will determine the decision.

So the objective is to interrupt and lower the stress level and thus the adrenalin flow. What can cause that to happen most readily is to introduce a pleasurable event into the situation. A simple pleasure? Receiving a compliment!

Yes it may seem contrived or phony but so what? You will need not to encounter angry students or your own adrenalin level increases, providing stress that makes your heart pump faster. Blood pressure rises. Other hormones like cortisol are released adding physical and psychological stress that can and will cause physical weakening and make you more susceptible to illness and other health problems. So if you need to give a fallacious compliment to keep you and the student healthier, do it.

Here’s an example. “Hi, I’m _____ Just want to say that I like your tee shirt, blouse, hair, glasses, jeans, backpack...” whatever seems to strike your eye quickly. Say it casually too so it will sound less contrived. Then as the student’s anger is interrupted you can even follow it up with a normal secondary question such as “Where did you get the tee, blouse, glasses….”

The student will most often just tell you where the tee was bought or even stop and think about it. This absolutely interrupts the flow of stress and anger and opens up a much more comfortable and congenial path for you to then ask how you may help.

These four techniques are tried and true. Try them and you might just feel that this job is worth the short hours and high pay.

If this article made sense to you, you may want to contact N.Raisman & Associates to see how you can improve academic customer service and hospitality to increase student satisfaction, retention and your bottom line
UMass Dartmouth invited Dr. Neal Raisman to campus to present on "Service Excellence in Higher Ed"  as a catalyst event used to kick off a service excellence program.  Dr. Neal Raisman presents a very powerful but simple message about the impact that customer service can have on retention and the overall success of the university.  Participants embraced his philosophy as was noted with heads nods and hallway conversations after the session.  Not only did he have data to back up what he was saying, but Dr. Raisman spoke of specific examples based on his own personal experience working at a college as  Dean and President.  Our Leadership Team welcomed the "8 Rules of Customer Service", showing their eagerness to go to the next step in rolling Raisman's message out.  We could not have been more pleased with his eye-opening presentation.    Sheila Whitaker UMass-Dartmouth

If you want more information on NRaisman & Associates or to learn more about what you can do to improve academic customer service excellence on campus, get in touch with us or get a copy of our best selling book The Power of Retention: More Customer Service for Higher Education. 

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