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How to train your staff to deal with high-stress situations

Let’s face it, when people are stressed, they are less enjoyable to be with and talk to. Often people who are lose perspective and dealing with customers and colleagues that are stressed can be very difficult.

It is hard enough that they are stressed, but often the way that they speak to you, challenge, and question you can also be more difficult to deal with. The result of this is that you also end up feeling agitated yourself. So now we have two stressed people having a conversation – it is pretty unlikely that things will go well.

If this happens a few times, then you start to notice things in the people you encounter on a daily basis that seem familiar. Perhaps recalling how the last time that phrase was used or something said in that tone, it led to a tense conversation. This simple act of recollection can itself be a stress trigger, even if the customer means nothing by it… And the net result is that this next conversation then becomes frustrating!

Knowing how to deal with high-stress interactions helps individuals in 2 key ways. Firstly, in the moment, they are better placed to deal with that conversation. Secondly, it stops them from (unhelpfully) recalling previous stressful conversations and letting that memory impact the ‘now’. 

So, what are some of the things that we can do that are helpful? What are the things to train learners on and help them to be aware of, to make these types of interactions easier to deal with?


It is not personal

This isn’t something you can definitively train, but it is something that leaders can continually remind their staff. For the most part, when someone is frustrated, angry, or stressed – and taking it out on an individual – it is not a personal attack. What often happens is that people ‘displace’ their frustration. This is the process whereby someone is cross or upset with a certain event (maybe even another person). But they take that frustration out on someone or something else. Often an employee is simply ideally placed for a stressed customer and so they get the full force of the stress and frustration.

So, tip number 1, is to make a point of reminding employees that (unless they intentionally did something to upset someone – which is unlikely) it is not a personal attack.



Personal resilience is a key part of dealing with high-stress interactions. Research has shown that resilience consists of 5 core component parts and that a person is only as strong as their ‘weakest’ element. The 5 sections are:

Perspective – this is about being able to step away from your situation and look at it differently. When you are too close to a situation you are unable to objectively filter and process information. When you have perspective, it means that you view things from a new angle. Often this prevents you from taking things personally, taking offense, or getting upset. Perspective helps you to see yourself, your actions, and your outcomes from someone else’s perspective – with less associated emotion.

Emotional Intelligence – We define EI as the ability to recognize, understand, and manage our own emotions and to recognize, understand, and influence those of others. In practical terms, this means being aware that emotions can drive our behavior and impact people both positively and negatively. As our EI increases, we learn how to manage those feelings – both our own and others – especially when we are under pressure, as we often feel in these high-stress situations. Those who have high Emotional Intelligence can better control their own emotions and recognize and (appropriately) respond to the emotions of their colleague or customer.

Purpose, values and strengths – we can all too easily focus on the things that have gone wrong and our own shortcomings. Most business appraisals ask us to focus on what we need to improve, and human nature makes us more likely to look for and listen to negative feedback. As such, taking time to recognize our purpose, values and strengths can be difficult – but it is key to our resilience. This is something that can be included in things like induction training, leadership training, or even as ‘top-up’ modules, which many organizations or consultancies can offer.

Purpose – research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in America showed that knowing our purpose is one of our 3 key internal motivators – the sort of thing that gets us out of bed. If we know and can focus on our purpose then when work seems difficult, we have a point to go back to, which reminds us why we are doing what we do.

Values – our values are the principles and standards of behavior by which we live. We use these not only to make decisions but also to judge how others act and behave in order to determine what they find important. If we know our values (and if they align to those of the business) then we take strength from these when things seem difficult – as we still believe we are doing the right thing.

Strengths – research shows that we are far more effective in building on our strengths, rather than trying to fix our weaknesses. If we can remember what we are good at, it emboldens us and gives us a sense of confidence. This, in turn, helps us to be more assertive and more proactive when dealing with a customer, or even a colleague.

Connections – the saying goes that ‘no man is an island’; none of us are alone. The quality of our support network is a key part of our resilience. These are the people who can lift when we feel low or can just be a listening ear. They offer a different opinion and a fresh perspective, all of which help us to be more resilient. In addition, a good network of people will remind us of our purpose, values and strengths.

Managing Physical Energy – this can often be overlooked, but when we take care of our physical state, it helps us mentally to cope. 


Circle of concern

Steven Covey developed a model known as the Circle of Influence. It consists of 3 concentric circles. The outer circle is the ‘Circle of Concern’. This is filled with those things that enter our heads, cause us concern, but we cannot do anything with them. Helping teams to identify what these things are, will allow them to see what stresses them out.

The next layer is the Circle of Influence. When things are moved from Concern to Influence, it empowers people. When dealing with high-stress situations, it can be very useful for staff to recognize what they can and cannot influence. As such, they can try to apply some more simple thinking – if I cannot influence, I will not worry about it! Whilst this is easier said than done, giving agents time to reflect and see which elements of the situation they can influence (and those they can’t) will help them to approach conversations differently and often with a much less stressful outcome.

At the core of the model is the Circle of Control. When things are in this section, then they are fully in the control of the staff member. The more empowered teams are, the more things will sit in this core – where stress levels are the lowest as control is the highest.

All in all, there are things to try, things to say and some things to learn. Leaders can be braver and staff can gain some more skills and knowledge through training and reflection but this is a long game. The more you do it, the better you get! Practice through the mistakes, try again, support and encourage, and as resilience grows and control is shared, employees will increasingly realize – it’s not personal!


About the author – Nathan Dring

Having worked in L&OD for over a decade, Nathan has experience in sales, service, SME and retail. Whilst at Asda, Nathan led the learning and development function for the global contact center estate.

Nathan was Head of Global Organisational Development at thebigword, before setting up his own business, Nathan Dring and Associates Limited at the start of 2018.


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