The Jerry Lewis interview is manna from heaven if you enjoy awkward situations as much as I. Anyone who has been on the other side of a prickly interaction with a customer can empathize (with a large helping of schadenfreude) with the reporter, as he keeps digging a hole.
Some non-complementary behavior might have helped. Tense situations often devolve into a feedback loop, and the best way out of it is to break the cycle. It’s also the hardest thing to do in the moment, witnessed in how he continues with his list of banal questions that just makes Jerry angrier. If the car is headed towards a cliff with no brakes, why keep plowing ahead?
Here are some suggestions, for when we find ourselves living in awkward times:
- Acknowledge the tension. “Jerry, this is so tense. My interviews aren’t usually this tense. I was so interested in talking with you. I don’t want to do battle with you.”
- Be creative. During one heated exchange, I forlornly remarked that it was my birthday and it sure was going really poorly so far. It broke the tension. Something out of left field can de-escalate. Proceed with caution, though.
- Create/recreate the human connection. Show that you understand the customer’s emotional reaction. Show that you are as upset, nay, even more upset with a difficult situation. Did anyone else feel the interviewer was onto something when Jerry started talking about Dean Martin? He couldn't keep it going, and I doubt I would have fared much better.
- Start with non-complementary behavior. “I want you to know that I have spoken with my bosses already. They are familiar with the situation, and I am completely empowered to make sure that you end up in a good place, as soon as possible. Let's figure out how to get there.” Suck the toxicity out of a room before an ugly tone is set.
- Stop. Take Five. There is no email that can’t wait a few minutes, or be sent in the morning, after a night’s rest. Meetings can be pushed back. Go reset.
If you want to change your counterpart’s behavior, don't "make" them change it. Change your own first, and give them options to react differently. Did that cheer you up, Jerry?