Most people in the customer service industry, especially those with frequent face-to-face interaction with customers and clients, know how important it is to smile and make eye contact while talking to someone. Unfortunately there are those who just do not “get it”, or just do not care, or just honestly are not aware how the little things they do or don’t do may actually escalate a person and situation, and customer service and engaging in an angrier world becomes a challenge.

Human beings are social creatures, instinctively and deep down inside we want to connect in some way with another person and we want to be heard, especially when we have a gripe about something! We want someone to engage with us, and it is critical that people understand they must engage with others too, and must understand that “engagement” can be as simple eye contact. People want to be treated with “respect”, and over the last few years where everyone seems to be angry and offended at everything and anything around them you must understand how effectively “engaging” with a customer/client can effectively and successfully de-escalate a situation or person. The fastest way to begin treating someone with respect is to simply make eye contact.

A number of years ago I was hired to conduct a conflict de-escalation training seminar with a municipal agency in Grand Rapids, MI. I went to visit the location a week or so before training day to meet with my contact and take a look around where the training was going to take place. The way the front desk was set up in the lobby had customers and clients enter and approach the desk from the side, the receptionist’s left. As I approached I noticed a few people in a line waiting to speak with her. The lady glanced up as I approached and then she looked back down at her desk and silently raised an arm to point to the end of line for me, and held it there for a moment until I started walking in that direction. I smiled to myself as I walked to the end of the line because I was wondering and envisioning what could have happened if I were someone who was having a bad day, or someone who is just so easily offended. Did the receptionist do anything “wrong”? No, not really, but she did not “engage” with me for even the briefest moment, there was no smile, no moment of eye contact, so friendly greeting and comment to point out the end of the line and that she’d be with me shortly. All that could take place within 4 seconds, and I would dare say that every single one of us can spare 4 seconds to engage with someone on any given day. In 4 seconds you can inadvertently escalate a situation or begin the de-escalation process.

That receptionist ended up going through my de-escalation training seminar later, and she was the friendliest, nicest person, and someone who took pride in her work and in herself. I can’t remember if it was during a break or at the end of the training seminar but I had the opportunity to to speak with her and pulled her aside. She was absolutely horrified at what I described and she about started crying! She acknowledged that though she did not specifically remember doing that to me, it was consistent with what she does when people come into the lobby and approach her desk. She now had a much deeper appreciation for how she could appear to be disconnected, uninterested, and rude when she just glances at someone and silently points in the direction she wants them to go. A person in a bad mood or just easily offended could have become more stressed and agitated by her “rudeness”.

Eye contact alone is not good either. At a recent training seminar a gentleman came up to me during a break to share with me an experience he had, and that he now had a different take on it and how he could have done things a little differently. Again, it’s those little things that can become a big bad thing if you are not careful!

The gentleman was working as a private security guard at the time, and a person came up to him and was angrily venting at him about something he really had no control over. The gentleman told me he just stood there looking at the person, did not smile, did not say anything and after a few moments the angry person demanded to know, “Why are you staring at me like I’m stupid?!” and the situation began to flare up in a whole new direction.

Everyone reading this can think of several people they know who have a very stoic, even stern facial expression even when they are relaxed. I’ve heard it called a “Resting Bitch Face”! These good people, who are friendly and have smiles that can light up a room just simply look angry all the time and unfortunately for this gentleman he has one of those bland, stoic expressions. The gentleman told me he knew not to try to speak over the angry person, to just let them vent, and he made eye contact with the person but he did not think he was doing anything else “wrong” at the time. What more could he have done or done differently?

It’s not JUST eye contact, but also little things like nodding your head from time to time, furrowing your eyebrows from time to time to show you are thinking about what a person is saying, and repeating what a person says are HUGE in being able to show you are ENGAGED with someone IN THE MOMENT. Depending on the situation, maybe a smile at some point will be warranted but you must be careful because you could come across as if you are laughing at the person and not taking them seriously. We have all been in that situation where we were trying to express ourselves, whether it was at work, or to family, or to a friend, but they did not make us feel validated, affirmed, or even heard because they did not make eye contact, or did not say or do anything to indicated they even heard us.

Customer service and engaging in an angrier world is much more than just a smile or just a friendly greeting, you MUST look at the other person! Eye contact is scientifically proven to be bonding between human beings, AND it’s the little things WITH the eye contact that help a person feel validated, affirmed, and simply heard. Little things such as nodding your head from time to time, furrowing your eyebrows and repeating what a person says, otherwise you may inadvertently escalate a situation.

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