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How to Effectively Handle an Angry Volunteer

Angry Volunteer

It is almost inevitable that a volunteer manager will be confronted by an angry volunteer. Regardless of the circumstances – frustration with a process or policy, interpersonal friction, a perceived (or real) slight – there are right ways and wrong ways to handle these confrontations. In this guide, we will illustrate four effective methods of dispute resolution, highlighting tactics to implement and those to avoid. Thanks to Marla Benson, founder and principal consultant at Volunteer Relations Consulting Group (www.volunteerrelations.com) for sharing this guidance with VIS, and you.

1. Smiling at an Angry Volunteer: Dos and Don’ts

It is our natural inclination to use a smile as a simple means of defusing an angry confrontation. To do so, however, may backfire, potentially being misunderstood or unappreciated in the best cases, or escalating a conflict in the worst cases.

Why a smile doesn’t work:

When interacting with an angry volunteer, a smile may be taken as a message that you do not take their frustration or concerns seriously. It is important to remember that anyone – including your volunteers – has an inherent right to be angry, and for some people, this is their most effective way of making a point.

What you should do instead of smiling:

In lieu of smiling to attempt defusing a tense encounter, there is a more effective method. In this method, both your body language and your speaking tone should be kept neutral – no tensing up, no shouting – as you allow the angry volunteer to finish making his or her point heard. Make it clear that you are listening, responding with full eye contact and nods of the head as appropriate. Simply by engaging in a neutral way and indicating that you are willing to listen to your volunteer’s concerns, you can often resolve a dispute quickly and effectively.

2. Telling an Angry Volunteer How They Feel (or Should Feel)

It is common to engage with angry individuals by attempting to agree with their positions, using phrases like “I see that you are upset” or “You are frustrated because…” to demonstrate empathy.

Why it doesn’t work:

Empathy is a powerful tool in the right circumstances. Unfortunately, when dealing with an angry volunteer, this is often misinterpreted by the individual as telling them how they feel…or how they should feel about a given situation. In other words, the angry person may feel as if you are putting words into their mouths, which has the potential to seriously escalate an encounter.

What to do instead:

During any confrontation, adopting a neutral tone of voice and body language can help defuse a tense encounter. It is ok to relate to an angry volunteer’s concerns or opinions that led to the frustration – but be careful not to inject your own opinions or positions in the process. It is also important to let the angry volunteer’s story flow uninterrupted, being supportive as the encounter progresses.

3. Forcing Your Own Solutions

When a person is angry, a common tactic in a confrontation is to present a solution. As with other de-escalation techniques, presenting your own wisdom as a solution may have negative consequences.

Why this doesn’t work:

When we use phrases like “what you should do…” or “when I was in a similar situation, I…” your goal is often to share your own experiences and wisdom in overcoming some obstacle. Unfortunately, this is a solution that worked for YOU, and may not work for someone else.

What to do instead:

An angry volunteer may have already formulated a solution to the problem at hand. Forcing yours on the situation may escalate an unpleasant encounter. Instead, be supportive and neutral while you gently guide the conversation with questions like, “have you considered your options?” or “what advice would you have for someone else facing this situation?” You’re putting the ball into their court, as it were, allowing them to vent while also working through potential solutions that may work for them and for the organization.

4. Taking Control of a Conversation

We have all experienced an angry confrontation with someone else in our personal and professional lives. We may have even been the angry person in a confrontation, and if so, most likely we just wanted to be heard. Sharing our own experiences with angry volunteers by taking control of the conversation, unfortunately, is not a suitable technique for allowing an irate person to tell his or her own story.

Why this doesn’t work:

Using phrases like “when that happened to me, I…” or “I know exactly what you mean” in a confrontation conveys the message that your own story is more important and valid than the angry volunteer’s. You’ve hijacked the conversation, often without realizing it.

What to do instead:

When dealing with an angry volunteer, remember above all that it is not about YOU, but about the concerns of the individual in question. In this respect, good listening skills are crucial; let the individual tell his or her story without interruption, indicating that you are listening with nods of the head and a supportive, neutral tone. Sometimes, the simple act of allowing someone to vent uninterrupted allows them to form their own solutions as they go along.

You may be amazed at how quickly these techniques can deescalate an angry confrontation, and will then give you and the angry volunteer some common ground with which to find a solution that works for them, for you, and for the organization.

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