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How to Deal with Aggressive Customers & Patients

Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals are often dealing with people when they’re at their most vulnerable. As a result, emotions can run high and tempers can flare. This means that however good your customer service skills, and however professional your staff members are, you’re likely to have to deal with angry and upset customers at regular intervals during your career.


Learning how to manage aggressive and unhappy customers and patients is an essential skill for all healthcare workers. While conflict resolution techniques are never guaranteed to work, there are measures you can take to help diffuse difficult situations, improve the customer experience, and ensure that healthcare workers and patients feel safe, secure, and reassured in all situations.


Read on to learn how to deal with aggressive customers and patients in a variety of healthcare environments with these top tips.


Try to Diffuse the Situation

The first step in successful conflict resolution is diffusing the situation. The higher emotions get and the more heated the discussion becomes, the harder it is to calm things down and come to a solution.


There are several ways to diffuse a situation. The method you choose will depend on the circumstances and your instincts. Demonstrating active listening, good body language, and empathy can all help to diffuse difficult situations.


It’s also important to avoid using accusatory language and attributing blame. One of the best ways to do this is to use ‘I’ statements instead of ‘You’ statements. So, for example, ‘I can see that this situation is frustrating’ rather than ‘You’re frustrated with this situation.’ After all, no one likes to be told how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking, especially during a confrontation.


Keep Your Perspective Straight and Don’t Get Defensive

When dealing with upset and angry patients, it’s important to keep your perspective and avoid becoming defensive. As a healthcare professional, it’s your job to see the bigger picture and to try and understand that health conditions, pent-up frustration, and fear may well be the root cause of a person’s aggression. This doesn’t mean you should excuse or condone threatening behavior, but it does mean you should try not to take it personally or let it upset you.


If you do let the words get under your skin, there’s a good chance you’ll become defensive. This can cause the situation to escalate quickly and result in tempers boiling over.


If you feel yourself becoming emotional or defensive, take a deep breath and take a mental step back from the confrontation. Try to see the situation from the patient or customer’s point of view and empathize with their position. If this doesn’t work, or if you feel threatened, call in your support team for backup.


Try to Control Your Body Language

Body language is incredibly important when working to resolve disputes with patients and customers face-to-face. According to famous researcher Albert Mehrabian, around 55% of communication relies on body language. Of the remaining 45%, 38% is the tone of voice and just 7% is the actual words that are spoken.


This means that, whether they realize it or not, angry customers will read into your body language throughout your encounter. If your body language doesn’t match the placating words coming out of your mouth, it could inflame the situation and fuel the customer’s anger.


You can begin de-escalating the situation by sitting down. Not only will this make you appear non-threatening, but it also shows you have time to listen to the patient or customer and resolve the issue. Try to keep your body as relaxed as possible, avoid closing your fists, even in frustration, and maintain an open posture.


Be a Good Listener and Show Empathy

A lot of the time, irate customers and angry patients just want to be heard. Actively listening to their complaint or grievance can often be enough to diffuse a situation, or at least take a step toward de-escalating it.


When listening to customer complaints, try to face the speaker throughout. If you turn your back on them or look at your computer or phone during a customer conversation, you can come across as disinterested or dismissive. Maintaining eye contact while you listen is another important way to make the customer feel heard.


As we’ve already seen, a huge amount of communication is non-verbal. So, make sure you pay close attention to body language, tone of voice, and other non-verbal cues when talking to a patient or customer. This can help you to get a better understanding of their state of mind and a clearer picture of the issue.


When talking to upset or difficult customers, it’s also important to avoid interrupting and to listen without judgment. This can often be a challenge, especially in heated situations. If you find yourself wanting to jump in and say your piece, take a deep breath, relax your body, and try to focus.


A key part of active listening is being present at the moment and really hearing what the other person is saying. To ensure you don’t become distracted, don’t think about what you’re going to say next and avoid imposing your own opinions or solutions.


Once your patient or customer has finished talking, ask questions that show you’ve really heard them. This can help to demonstrate empathy, something that can further help to diffuse difficult situations.


How to actively listen to upset patients and difficult customers:

  •   Face the speaker
  •   Maintain eye contact
  •   Watch out for non-verbal cues
  •   Don’t interrupt
  •   Listen without judgment
  •   Don’t plan what to say next
  •   Don’t impose your own opinions or solutions
  •   Stay focused
  •   Ask questions


Use the AER Technique

One way to improve your active listening skills and show empathy is to use the AER technique. AER (Acknowledge, Empathize, Reassure) allows you to approach aggressive customers and patients with a proven technique for de-escalation. In essence, it works through the implementation of three steps:

  •   Acknowledge — As we have already discussed, irate customers and angry patients often simply want to be heard. Acknowledging the complaint or issue is the first step to understanding and showing real empathy.
  •   Empathize — Real empathy is underpinned by acknowledgment and the ability to ensure the customer or patient is understood. When used correctly, this will help bring the individual onto your side and allow you to move onto the next step.
  •   Reassure — Once you have acknowledged the problem and empathized with how the individual is feeling, you can work towards resolution with the customer or patient. Reassuring the individual that the problem will be taken seriously and that a solution will be worked towards is a proven way to settle the situation.

For example, if a combative guest reports to the front desk, visibly stressed because a housekeeper walked in on them as they were changing, you can implement the AER technique to deal with the situation.


Firstly, acknowledge the importance of the guest’s right to privacy in your hotel, and that a mistake has been made in violating that right. Secondly, empathize with how the guest is feeling, that they have a right to be upset by this mistake—even if it was an honest one. Finally, thank the guest for reporting the incident and reassure them that you can work together to find a resolution.


Learn When to Walk Away

Sometimes, no matter how good your customer service team or how polished your communication skills are, there’s just nothing you can do to resolve a situation or reconcile with an unhappy customer. If you’ve tried everything and still not made any headway, it might be time to walk away. You can always re-start the conversation when everyone has had a chance to take a deep breath.


Practice Self-Care

It’s not easy being the subject of someone’s aggression. In fact, it can be difficult to let go of the situation. If possible, ask for a break and do something that is soothing to you. Take a walk, meditate, watch a funny video, or call a friend. The most important thing is to pause and process what happened, and to remember what happened isn’t about you.  There’s a helpful podcast on this topic from Hidden Brain we highly recommend.


No employee should be subjected to aggressive or threatening behavior. However, when confrontations do happen, it’s important that workers aren’t left on their own. Panic buttons can help to ensure that front-line workers are able to call for help when they need it. Find out more, and learn how our panic button systems are already protecting workers around the country, by getting in touch today.

About Author

Yasmine Mustafa

Yasmine Mustafa believes ROAR found her, not the other way around. A former refugee and undocumented immigrant, she draws upon her unique life experiences to lead ROAR in its mission to empower and protect workers across all industries. Her journey is a testament to resilience and unwavering commitment. With over 15 years of leadership in the tech industry, including the successful sale of her first company, 123LinkIt, to a firm in Silicon Valley in 2009, Yasmine is a driving force for positive change, balancing profits with purpose. Yasmine’s workplace safety advocacy and leadership have earned recognition from the BBC, CNBC’s Upstart 100 and the City of Philadelphia. Yasmine is a highly sought-after conference speaker. A two-time TEDx speaker, Yasmine has also presented at the prestigious SXSW and CES conferences, sharing her deep passion for harnessing technology for positive change. Beyond her professional life, Yasmine enjoys time spent with friends and family, exploring the outdoors, biking, and hiking. She also dedicates her time to the boards of Coded by Kids, Leadership Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Alliance for Capital and Technologies.

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