Work & Family Mailbox

Q: On my job, I often have to deal with irate or abrasive customers. I don't like confrontations, and my body responds just as you described in your recent column on stress: My heart speeds up, my hands get extremely cold and my mind goes blank. How can I stay calm and think on my feet?

J.W., Boston

A:Try not to take customers' attitudes and behavior personally, says Kate Hays, a Toronto psychologist specializing in sports and performance psychology. "Their comments are not a judgment about you, and they don't define who you are as a person," she says. Try to maintain a pleasant and calm facade and remind yourself that you are competent.

Rather than thinking about the behaviors you want to avoid, focus on the target behavior you want, such as staying relaxed, calm and poised, says Charlie Brown, a Charlotte, N.C., sports psychologist. As a model, recall a past incident you handled well, or how another person dealt well with a confrontation, Dr. Brown says. Have in mind some strategies for staying on target. For example, during an emotional exchange with a customer, "slow the process down by taking both a physical and mental break in the action," perhaps by leaning back in your chair or picking up a notepad, Dr. Brown says. Slow your pulse by breathing deeply from your abdomen.

Practice thoughts that will help you keep perspective, remembering that your job is to understand the customer's concern, convey empathy and explain the company's policy, even if the customer doesn't like it. Try out these skills with a friend or colleague, and write reminders to yourself on a note card to keep with you at work.

Take a break, such as a walk around the block, after a stressful incident, Dr. Hays says. Also, check on whether your employer offers or pays for training in customer management. For more help with the specifics of your situation, consider consulting a psychologist, therapist or coach.

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at

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