Despite how intelligent or sensible we think we are, we’re all a little irrational. This is especially true in conflict or stressful situations.

Some people have irrational beliefs that amplify their reactive emotions. This leads to difficult behaviours, angry outbursts and verbal abuse. They believe they’re entitled to make demands – a state-of-mind you can recognise if they repeatedly use words such as: ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘have to’ and ‘can’t’.

In the ongoing wake of COVID pandemic’s testing times, many people are publicly voicing their anxieties and frustrations at maximum volume, escalating work stress for many frontline workers. For some time, I’ve been talking with these staff from different industries, and the responses are similar. They are exhausted by having to deal with abuse, intimidation, and personal insults from customers, patients, and on occasions, colleagues.

People working in call centres, in retail, hospitality, and health sectors are among the most at-risk. More than half of all Australians in these industries have reported a significant increase in irritable and volatile customer interactions over the past 2 years, according to a 2021 report by ANU and Sydney University.

Service staff are focused on meeting customer needs, solving problems and providing satisfaction. So they are particularly vulnerable to hostility from customers because they are faced with unsolvable problems and are being harassed for situations beyond their control in an unstable work environment. Many people are facing real financial losses, family disruptions, frustrations to their world view or personal status.

Many frontline workers are attempting to manage difficult interactions with people who strongly believe one or more of the following:

  1. People should always do the right thing. When they behave unfairly to me, they should be called out and punished.
  2. It’s awful and catastrophic when things are not the way I want them to be.
  3. My misery comes from outside events and pressures: I can’t control my hurt feelings.
  4. If something seems dangerous, I must focus on the danger, no matter how anxious it makes me feel.
  5. There must be a right/perfect solution for my problems: I can’t tolerate anything else

How do You Help Frontline Workers Manage Customer Aggression?

To deal effectively with irrational people and conflicts escalating, start by helping them understand what’s going on the brains of the anxious, aggressive customers, with the following A. B. C. insights about what can be driving irrational behaviours.

  1. When you’re emotionally charged, you can’t listen accurately because your flight-fight-freeze response overrides your brain’s capacity to think rationally.
  2. Which means, you will misinterpret or misunderstand most information. You are unlikely to recall what was said because fear will be driving your emotions, therefore you’ll tend to put the worst spin on everything.
  3. Feeling anxious and under attack, you are likely to retaliate and start the blame game, attributing fault to the other person which will intensify your emotions and behaviours, and very quickly things can get out of control.


Here are 6 strategies for managing conflict with irrational people.

1. Speak Concisely.

The agitated person’s ability to listen and engage will be significantly reduced.

Your communication strategy is: Use a template of 3-4 short sentences of about 7-10 words. Don’t defend your situation or give complex explanations: this will only increase tensions.

2. Start with an Empathic “I”.

Lead with “I” statements to gain control of the conversation. The real problem is usually hidden behind the complaint the person has first presented and may have nothing to do with you or this issue.

Your communication strategy is: Listen to offer empathy with limits, describe problems in the third person. Avoid using “you” to describe behaviour or needs.

“I understand this is difficult due to x fact …”

“I understand there is a problem with …x fact.”

3. Reduce the emotional intensity.

Use words like ‘frustration’, ‘disappointed’, ‘concerned’, to tone the conversation’s emotional intensity down a couple of notches.

Your communication strategy is: Turn demands into requests

“I understand you prefer/expected/etc….”

“I can see/hear you feel concerned about … however …x fact.”

4. Determine their responsibility in this issue.

Rephrase their demands to become requests. Ditto insistent urgency to become preferences. Refocus the issue to what are their responsibilities.

Your communication strategy is: Determine what the other person is responsible for in this situation.

“Many customers have had this experience and have found they need to … X fact.”

“Our policies have changed. We now require … X fact. “Most customers can manage this by … X fact.”

5. Be Repetitive.

Irrational people are focused on their emotional needs, presented as demands or tragedies. Repetition means the message is more likely to be understood and you can stand your ground.

Your communication strategy is: Stick to the facts. Repeat the template 3-4 times if needed.

6. End a conversation early when abusive language or behaviour starts.

Be a brick wall to further escalations. End an escalating conversation promptly, courteously.

Your communication strategy is: “I would like to resolve this matter with you. However, I’m not continuing any conversation where there is (name the X behaviour). Please call/return at a more suitable time.”


Want to know more details about this approach to difficult and demanding people? Check out this article, “Here’s to the Best Teacher I Never Met”.