Building Rapport – Mirroring an Angry User

I know what you’re thinking:

Wait, what? Mirror an angry user? As in, be angry ourselves? Surely, you jest.

And my answer is:

Don’t call me Shirley.

Or rather:

No, not quite. But sort of….

Last time (yeah, yeah, it was a while ago), I talked about mirroring as a way to build rapport with a user. This time, I’ll talk about how we can use mirroring when dealing with an angry user.

The goal when mirroring an angry user is to first build rapport by matching their style of communication. Once we establish rapport, we shift our own chatting style, and then they’ll subconsciously start mirroring us.

At least, that’s how it works in theory. As much as I prefer to couch my how-to posts in science, admittedly, there isn’t much scientific research behind the strategy of mirroring an angry user. What we have instead are tips from sales or customer service sites.

Still, if we accept the validity of mirroring in human communication (i.e., when two people have rapport, they subconsciously start to mirror each other), it makes sense that the strategy can work. So going on that assumption, this is what we do:

  • First, we have to deduce the overall mood the user is in (which is obviously more difficult in text-based chat than in real life). Are they lost and getting frustrated to the point that they want to give up? Are they upset over a specific issue? Are they Adam Sandler angry (i.e., irrationally angry)? And so on.
  • Once we get an idea of their mood, we start mirroring it. Now obviously, we can only do this to a certain extent. If they’re cursing at us, of course we don’t want to curse back. Duh.
  • Instead, what we want to do is to convey a similar emotion. For instance:
    • If they’re frustrated to the point of exhaustion (“OMG, I’ve been working on this for four hours, and I still don’t get it”), then we want to be more mellow and subdued ourselves (“I’m sorry about that. Let’s see what we can do, okay?”). This would not be the time to be peppy and use a lot of exclamation points, as it will only come across as obnoxious.
    • If they’re specifically angry at something (“I can’t get this goddamned contact form to work!!!”), then we convey focus and determination, too (“Oh, no! Okay, I’ll take a look right now and see what’s going on.”). Their anger is directed, so we want to be equally directed in helping them.
    • If they’re irrationally angry (“What a bunch of morons you are”), then we need to be stern right back at them (“We are here to help you, but we will not tolerate verbal abuse“). Granted, in this case, we’re mirroring to stick up for ourselves rather than build rapport, and we need to tread carefully in order to maintain our professionalism. Nevertheless, the best way to deal with a verbally abusive user is often just to be unwaveringly firm.
    • Also note the key difference between the above two examples of angry: In the first case, the user’s anger is directed at something else, so we mirror by aligning ourselves with their desire to fix whatever’s broken. In the second case, the user’s anger is directed at us (i.e., they’re being confrontational), so we mirror by confronting them back.
  • Once we’ve mirrored the user’s mood and established that we’re on their mental wavelength, we start shifting our tone:
    • If they’re frustrated, we gradually pick up the energy level and maybe even insert a few jokes here and there, to perk them back up.
    • If they’re specifically upset and totally riled up, we decrease our energy and become more mellow ourselves, to calm them down.
    • If they’re abusive, we shift to a more casual and respectful tone — not that we weren’t being respectful before, of course (you can be stern without being verbally abusive).

The point is, we match their mood first, to bridge any potential disconnect between us and them. And once we’ve bridged that disconnect and made them feel more comfortable around us, then we change our own mood (outwardly, anyway — ideally, we want to be calm and zen-like inside the whole time) as a way to guide them towards a more productive conversation.

Below is an example of a chat (which I’ve broken down here) where I used mirroring to build rapport with the user. She was frustrated with the sudden change to her dashboard, so my attempt at mirroring entailed me saying that it can be complicated for us, too. (Of course, I had to be delicate, because I wanted to commiserate with her, but not do so by throwing WordPress.com or other HE’s under the bus.)

After mirroring her a bit, I started to lighten the mood and add smileys and whatnot. She responded positively, and calmed down not long after that. Even though I wasn’t able to find a solution for her immediately, she understood and was ultimately satisfied.

Of course, I can’t say that mirroring was the only thing that helped me to build rapport with the user in this case. But it seemed to help, and ever since this chat, she’s been nothing but professional and even friendly to me. At this point, I definitely (knock on wood, knock on wood) consider her a formerly angry user.

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#building-rapport #tips-language #mirroring