Secretarial: Hang on - don't hang up

Vast call centres, new mobile networks... the more we rely on the telephone, the more risk we run of suffering abusive calls at work.
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The Independent Culture
PHONE RAGE is at large. According to research by the Industrial Society, thousands of office workers now suffer the emotional trauma of being on the receiving end and, not surprisingly, secretarial staff are among the most common victims. Swearing, personal remarks and threats are cited as the usual forms of abuse, and while perpetrators are most likely to be customers or clients, colleagues are also increasingly guilty.

Research shows that people are at least five times more likely to lose their temper when dealing with businesses - including the ones they work for - than they were 15 years ago. Liz Howell, associate trainer with the Industrial Society and co-adviser on its new Phone Rage video training pack, believes this is because we have entered an era where we are constantly reminded that we have rights, and where we expect instant solutions.

"We are so used to achieving results at the touch of a button that we have become far more demanding and impatient. The anonymity of the telephone encourages people to express their demands and impatience in a way that they would never dare to in a face-to-face conversation. In addition, the phone is immediate."

If you have a gripe and decide to visit a company about it, your anger is likely to be somewhat diffused by the time you arrive, whereas if you pick up the phone, you'll still be at the peak of your rage.

"The increase in call centres and mobile phones means that the use of the phone as a communication tool is at an all-time high," says communications analyst, Brian Hengon. In the final three months of last year, Britons spent 44,869 minutes on the phone - an increase of 14 per cent in just 12 months.

Howell claims that secretarial staff are particularly at risk from phone rage if they are the first point of contact at an organisation. "PAs to managers are also at risk because abusive callers often demand to speak to the boss and inevitably, they will get put through to his or her PA first."

When it comes to colleagues, says Howell, secretaries tend get the wrath that is, in reality, aimed at their managers, but which the caller wouldn't dare to express to them directly, due to their seniority. "Because stress in the workplace is so prevalent and because companies are often located in different parts of the country, colleagues are unlikely to know each other - adding to the anonymity that leads them to vent this via the phone."

Even more worrying, claims the Industrial Society, is the fact that managers rarely realise the hostility that secretaries are subjected to because if and when these managers get to speak to the perpetrator, he or she tends to have calmed down. The Industrial Society is encouraging managers to attend its Phone Rage course. "We provide these managers with tips on these callers should be handled, and they then set up their own in- house courses aimed specifically at the relevant industry and roles."

So what is the best way to manage phone rage? The first lesson is to understand how and why rage happens in both the caller and yourself which, in a nutshell, works like this. Someone becomes so stressed that all they need is a strike to ignite it, at which point it turns to anger. "That's why the second lesson is recognising that the phone rage is hardly ever personal," says Howell. "Our instinct tells us to fight back when someone becomes hostile but through this recognition, the recipient can follow the second and most important lesson: Respond not React."

Very often, callers don't want a reaction of any kind, says Julia Moore, occupational psychologist. "They just want a listening and responsive ear to diffuse their anger. To show you are listening can be enough."

Using the caller's name - and providing them with yours - is advised by the Industrial Society, however, because it removes the anonymity of the situation. In addition, ensure that the caller knows you are trying to understand his or her perspective.

In situations where the caller is after a resolution, Howell suggests that you turn to lesson three: Clarify the Complaint. "Ask for details, not only because this will assist you in finding a solution, but once you move into facts, people tend to shift from emotional speak to rational speak. At this point, you should use positive language so that the caller knows you are taking action."

If all else fails, says Dr David Lewis, a psychologist specialising in communication at work, take note of a recent discovery that shows that telephone communication may be affected by which ear we use to listen. "Due to different parts of the brain acting in different ways, phone messages heard through your right ear are likely to be analysed logically while those via your left may trigger a more imaginative reaction."

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