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Respect is a Two Way Street

Respect is a Two Way Street

Working in the Communication Center (where my student team and I field all incoming emails and phone calls to the admission office) is an education in stopping blame and rudeness at the door, and re-framing the underlying feelings with words that are still kind. Whether it’s trying to dodge finger pointing, diffuse a dicey situation, or keeping ourselves calm and kind after being asked the same question for the hundredth time, you learn a lot about how we as a society choose to  communicate with each other.

One afternoon I was speaking with a frustrated, and angry, parent. The family was trying to schedule a campus visit on a day that we were at our maximum capacity (per fire code regulations). We could not overload the tour for extra guests, which is I understand is frustrating for families who are trying to make travel plans. I explained to the parent that we get many calls every day asking to overload the tours (which we can’t), so an exception in one person’s case would be really unfair to others. After what I thought was a successful navigation, though disappointing conclusion for the caller, the parent threw a pointed jab at me and the school and hung up. After a sigh, I had to go back to work and answer more calls. I tried not to over analyze the conversation, but in reality, it’s hard to let everything roll off.

The Snowball Effect

When someone is rude or unkind, it has an effect not only on our staff, but on other parents, students, and families who call our office. It makes my students and I less motivated to work, and less chipper on the next call. We regularly have calls where we need to “take a lap” afterwards. Usually during those breaks, I remind myself that the person on the other end of the line may be having a bad day, or things are overwhelming and stressful with trying to get into college and pay for it. While I know that I’m probably not the reason for the outburst, our team, including our student workers, still get our feelings hurt in the blast.

Even if we aren’t upset at the end of a hard call, the calls themselves are exhausting as we try to calmly, kindly and firmly give the correct responses. Calls often start with an issue… that’s usually the reason people call in the first place. The majority of problems are easy to solve and we move on. However, when the situation is dicey, it’s an intricate balance to give the caller options and resources while the ultimate conclusion is not what the caller came for. That’s why the parent’s comment in the situation I just described was hurtful. I tried to balance the situation and provide a well-informed and genuine response. The remark invalidated my work. But then… the parent called back.

A Surprising Outcome

One of our student workers waved me down. “It’s that parent. They’re asking for you.” No part of me wanted to take the call. After a quick glance for emergency exits, I mustered some fake enthusiasm, “Hi! Was there anything else I can help you with?” To my utter amazement, the parent genuinely apologized for the unkind words and tone. No one have ever done that before!

It was the first and only time anyone has ever called back to apologize for their rude behavior. In their apology, the parent recognized that while it was a frustrating situation, I was doing my job, and their annoyance had little to do with me personally.

It takes a lot to separate the message from the messenger, but we appreciate it when the caller can do that. Of course I would prefer for people to be kind in the first place, but sometimes things get away from all of us, and an apology speaks volumes to our willingness to see each other as people and not just nameless voices on the other end of a phone line.

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