There’s a screaming match across the counter.

I’ve got a customer yelling at a staff member. The staff member is giving as good as he gets with a passive-aggressive smirky tone that’s winding the customer even more. Other customers are looking on. Everyone is triggered.

Woman in conflict

My Apple watch is beeping with a warning that my own heart rate is elevated.

At the same time, everything goes into slow motion. Time freezes.

How did it come to this? I never want this to happen again.

We’ve done all the training, all the procedures have been written. We’ve even written a policy on how to respond, how to stand (non-aggressively), and how to escalate (to a manager). 

Some of my staff silkily swerve through conflict, while others bombastically berate their ‘opponents’.

Why can’t this employee just snap into line?

They can’t.

We assume people can ‘control’ their emotions and how they react. We believe people can ‘choose’ to act a certain way.

But as author Lisa Feldman Barret explains in her book Seven and a Half Lessons About The Brain, we don’t really have as much free will as we think – a view shared by neuroscientist and author Sam Harris.

We are shaped by our culture and our experiences. As Seth Godin likes to say:

People like this do things like that.

It’s a big adjustment to know how to deal with a different skin colour when you’re bought up in a small homogenous town.

It’s not easy for a kid who’s dragged themselves out of poverty to listen to whining privileged snotty customer with 1st world problems.

Deep down, we understand this, but we think people can turn off their ‘being’ when they’re at work.

Automatic actions

We act automatically in most circumstances. Just like we retract a finger from a burning stove, a screaming customer could cause a similar employee reaction. An employee who doesn’t understand (experience or learnt) how to deal with that situation will revert to how they deal with the problems in their personal life.

If the employee is from a rough neighbourhood, they may respond with aggression. Or, they might react to attack with calm because they know aggression might get them killed. It depends on the environment they’ve experienced in life. Did they have parents to guide them? Did they have someone harmed by violence? These experiences will shape them more than a procedures manual.

Uncontrollable events create uncontrollable events.

So what do you do?

Our brains are in a constant state of pruning and tuning. A blind person prunes neurones related to sight and tunes the ones related to sounds. The brain’s plasticity means it’s constantly changing its physiology based on its environment.

Learning and experiences shape minds.

Anyone who has travelled knows how much it changes you. Someone who hasn’t travelled will never know. Someone who has had a child knows the profundity of birth. Someone who’s been incarcerated knows what it means to suffer.

The more experiences we have, the more we adjust.

It’s not the fault of the poor kid from a homogenous background that they react to their antagonistic customer. It’s not the customer’s fault who’s been fleeced by a business partner while their husband cheated on them. 

It’s not the fault of a poor child that they didn’t get to experience travel. But a guide can ‘share’ their experiences.

Don’t ‘blame’ poor behaviour. Understand it. 

Don’t correct their way; show them the way.

People are in constant search of mentors and guides. You don’t have to be a sandal-wearing navel-gazing guru sitting in a dark cave; just lead with an open hand. Show another way. Show by example. Lead with an open hand.