We've all dealt with our fair share of challenging situations in the workplace, and among the most trying are unhappy customers. Sometimes our clients are having a bad day and other times the business is at fault for doing something genuinely wrong. Ten years ago, a co-worker of mine at a luxury day spa had a client come in and leave with an angry expression. He was expecting to have a sports-oriented massage and deeper specific work done on his shoulder area, but he felt that the service was too much of a generic approach. Later, when pressed, he complained that his shoulder still hurt. The massage therapist became defensive, insisted that he shouldn't have chosen the style of session he did and that he should have communicated more clearly. This approach did not help the situation, rather escalating it into a negative experience resulting in a poor online review. Most issues stem from either miscommunication or unmet expectations leading to disappointment. Using Imago dialogue may have prevented this situation entirely.
Often, clients just want to feel that they've been heard. Enter Imago Dialogue: a powerful tool to aid in communication.
Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT) was co-developed by married couple Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt in 1980. It was popularized in Dr. Hendrix’s New York Times best seller Getting The Love You Want. The technique uses Imago Dialogue to help couples understand, validate and empathize with one another’s unique reality, rather than resorting to anger and reactivity.
For nearly four decades, Imago Dialogue has helped people have intentional conversations and develop deeper, more mindful relationships. Each party comes into a place of mutual understanding and acceptance, creating a win-win situation.
Today, this communication tool is not only being used in romantic relationships but also by business professionals and clients. Imago is all about deepening relationships and turning conflict into an opportunity for compassion and growth. Imago Dialogue involves three steps: mirroring, validation and empathy.
Step One: Mirroring
Mirroring is when you repeat back everything that your customer has said, so they understand that you are truly hearing them. For example, a client will state their complaint, such as: "I was unsatisfied with my service today. I asked for specific work on my shoulder and it still hurts me." And you will restate: "So, let me see if I got that. You wanted specific work done on your shoulder and it's still hurting you, so you're feeling unsatisfied with your session today. Did I get that?" The client will agree with you if you understood. If not, they will clarify. If they clarify, repeat (mirror) the new statement until the client is sure that you heard them. It is important not to get defensive during this time. The only goal here is to make the client feel heard and understood.
If a client is triggered by the mirroring, it’s important to clearly communicate the purpose behind it, thereby helping to eliminate the “us versus them” mentality. Explain that your goal is to come to a mutual understanding about their concern and to make sure you're fully hearing them. It is a friendly but professional way to clarify your intention and illustrate your willingness to work together as a team.
Step Two: Validation
Make a validating statement that addresses the client's issue. For example, in the issue above try: "It's totally understandable ..." or "Anyone would feel that way ..." or "That makes sense to me...." This validates the client's concerns and lets them know that you're wanting to not only hear them but to also understand them. Make sure to ask: "Did I get that?" and get the client to clarify if anything is misunderstood. Validation is a necessary part of feeling heard.
Physical cues, along with timing and pacing, can help you accomplish your goal. Slow, long nods usually indicate understanding, whereas fast, rapid nods can convey urgency and impatience. Sudden movements or shifts can indicate an unspoken thought or feeling, while slight movements or changes in visual focus can mean your attention has shifted. Shrugging your shoulders implies doubt. Relax your shoulders down, away from your ears, to suggest ease and comfort. These subtle physical cues, combined with verbal affirmation, ensure validation. Often validation comes with visual signs of relief, especially because at this point in a typical conversation, someone may become defensive rather than validating. The unexpected validation can cause their walls to break down and a client to feel really good.
Step Three: Empathy
Empathy is the ability to understand and identify with another’s feelings, thoughts or attitude. Unlike sympathy, which calls for understanding and feeling concerned, empathy involves sharing another’s experience and having the capacity to relate. It requires an authentic, heartfelt, human-to-human connection.
Imagine what your client may be feeling in that situation. Try, "I imagine you feel disappointed or frustrated that your needs weren't met during your session today." Try to include "feeling words" rather than "thinking words" and ask after your statement: "Is that how you feel?" By placing yourself in your client's shoes, you communicate to them that you understand just how upsetting their experience must have been for them. This shows them that you're a human too, that you get it and that you want to get it.
Using these three steps might just lead to a better customer service experience and save a client relationship.