Dealing with Angry Users – Video and Slides An online implementation of WordPress code that lets you immediately access a new WordPress environment to publish your content. is a private company owned by Automattic that hosts the largest multisite in the world. This is arguably the best place to start blogging if you have never touched WordPress before. Happiness Engineer Mindy Postoff joined us today to share techniques for providing great support – while dealing with angry users. The presentation recording, slides, and transcript are all available below.

This workshop was the third fourth in a series that evolved from the 2017 Community Summit, with the aim to share best practices for WordPress support. All past sessions can be can be viewed here.

If you have suggestions for other support-related subjects or speakers you’d like to see in the future, feel free to comment here – we’re open to ideas.

Video (34 min.)



We all have something in common: we’re selling something. And whatever that something is, whether it’s a product or a service, whether it’s something we own or something our bosses own, we work to sell it so that we can earn a paycheck.

But selling is a two-way street. In order for the equation to work, there needs to be buyers. These buyers are your users, and sometimes, they can be quite angry.

Although it can be difficult to deal with these users in the moment, they can actually be a tremendous benefit to you and your company.  Their screaming actually comes with a silver lining, so be sure to listen carefully to what they’re saying.

Angry and frustrated users are perfect for giving you feedback on how you or your business can improve its product and/or service. But that’s not the only reason to engage with your angry customers quickly and help them. In today’s world of social media, our personal soapboxes can reach a massive audience, and negativity spreads like wildfire online.

American Express conducted a survey in 2014 and they found that while 46% of American consumers will always tell people about their good service experiences, 60% said that they always share the bad ones. And not only will more people talk, but they’ll tell 3 times as many people.

So, before these angry customers reach for their social media megaphones and you’re battling a viral inferno, let’s put the fire out while it’s still just burning in one person.

When people are yelling and swearing at you, they’re mad, they’re stressed, they’re frustrated. They’re caught in…

Emotion Mind, and it’s next to impossible for them to think calmly, rationally and logically. It’s a state of mind where their thoughts and behaviors are simply a response to what they’re feeling.

Everyone gets into Emotion Mind sometimes. Maybe they’re the exhausted cashier at the supermarket, working their 2nd full-time job trying to make ends meet who sighs heavily at you because you decided you didn’t want that jar of pickles after all. Or maybe they’re the waiter at the restaurant, stressed because it’s their first day and the kitchen is backed up with orders, and they really have no idea how long it will take for your meal to be ready. Or maybe it’s the driver who cuts you off, because they just got word that their father had a heart attack.

You might run into those people when you’re not at work, when you don’t have to help them. And in those situations, you may decide to respond like this…

But what if they are your users? What if they’re this angry with your products or services? It’s your job to try and help them, so what can you do?

I’m going to present a scenario that might seem familiar to some people here in the WordPress community. I call it: The Angry Customer. Scene 1 – Emotion Mind.

Customer: After updating your stupid pluginPlugin A plugin is a piece of software containing a group of functions that can be added to a WordPress website. They can extend functionality or add new features to your WordPress websites. WordPress plugins are written in the PHP programming language and integrate seamlessly with WordPress. These can be free in the Plugin Directory or can be cost-based plugin from a third-party, no one can pay for their orders! I’m losing thousands of dollars each day and it’s your fault! This is URGENT!

Me: First of all, it’s not my plugin that’s the problem. It works for everyone else, so it’s not my fault. If you want my help, though, you’ll need to calm down.

Customer: Calm down?! My website was running great until your plugin broke it. This is the worst customer service ever!

Yikes! Fighting fire with fire can lead to an extremely heated situation. In this scene, did you see how quickly I got defensive? It’s absolutely fine that I stand behind my plugin, and it’s absolutely understandable to be offended when someone has attacked it. However, when I got wrapped up in my own Emotion Mind, things spiraled out of control. At this point, I’ve probably lost this user forever, and I shouldn’t be surprised if I see a negative review appear for it. Most likely, they now believe that not only is my plugin at fault, but I’m completely useless at supporting it.

We’ve all been caught in Emotion Mind, and most likely, we didn’t make the best decisions. Understanding that, without judgment, is the first step in being able to help people who are temporarily stuck there.

Opposite to Emotion Mind,  is Logic Mind. This is the space where rational, intellectual and fact-based thinking happens. Emotions simply aren’t part of the equation. In Logic Mind, we remain calm, devise our strategies and respond to the problem.

Maybe you’re in a technical support role like me, or maybe you’re a developer creating plugins or themes. In these positions, much of our work revolves around solving problems. Therefore, it’s fair to assume that we spend a considerable amount of time in Logic Mind.

So, let’s take another look  at The Angry Customer, and this time, it might seem a bit more familiar. Scene 2 – Logic Mind.

Customer: After updating your stupid plugin, no one can pay for their orders! I’m losing thousands of dollars each day and it’s your fault! This is URGENT!

Me: Can you explain the exact issue? Is there an error message?

Customer: The issue is that people can’t complete their orders! You need to fix this!

Me: I can’t recreate the problem on my test site. In order to troubleshoot this, please try disabling all plugins except mine. Let me know if that fixes the trouble.

Customer: Are you kidding me? This is a live site! I can’t turn off all my plugins!

Ok, so in this scene, I certainly didn’t escalate the problem, but by remaining in Logic Mind, I never addressed the customer’s feelings. High intensity emotions – like anger and frustration – need to be defused and can’t be ignored. Otherwise the situation can still get out of hand.

Has anyone ever tried to help someone, a user or not, and they just seemed to get angrier?  Maybe they even yelled back at you, or texted back in all-caps, “You’re not listening to me!” It’s certainly happened to me… probably at least twice. It’s noble to try and help solve the problem, but if I reply logically when they’re caught up in their emotions, they won’t understand what I say. Instead, it will feel like I didn’t listen to them. What they really wanted, at least at first, was to be heard.

So, what can we do to ensure that our users know that we’ve heard them? What can we do to ensure that our customers feel acknowledged? Well, while we’re thinking logically about this, let’s look at a Venn diagram.

On one side, we’ve got Emotion Mind, and on the other side, we’ve got Logic Mind. That coveted middle ground that connects the two sides, which otherwise can’t communicate with each other, is… Wise Mind.

Wise Mind is a Buddhist concept, which leads to a balance of both logic and emotion. When we’re in this state, we make better decisions because both our reason and our feelings are reassured. It’s feeling sympathy for people having trouble, as well as proposing solutions to help them.

I imagine Wise Mind looking like this…

Our challenge, when working with angry users, is two-fold. First, we need to get into and stay in Wise Mind. Second, we need to pull the customer out of their Emotion Mind and have them join us in Wise Mind.

When trying to get into Wise Mind, I think of the metaphor of flight safety instructions. You need to put the oxygen mask on yourself first, before you’re able to assist others. If you’re not already in Wise Mind, it’ll be impossible to help others get there.

So, you may be thinking, “Gee, Mindy. Sounds great, theoretically. But how can I practically get into Wise Mind?” Well, what I do is observe and describe.

First, you can observe yourself. Think of this as a quick, 10-second meditation session. It will give your brain a chance to weigh in so that your emotions aren’t dictating what you say, write or do in response. Use this as an opportunity to take a deep breath, and “watch” as the air passes from your nostrils to your lungs. You can also imagine that you’re tiny and in your fingertips, as they rest gently on the keyboard. Or, if you’re not actually face-to-face with your user, maybe you take step back and stretch your arms as wide or as high as they’ll go.

The next step is to describe what’s going on physically with your body. This keeps your brain engaged. Try closing your eyes and describe what you’re experiencing. For example:

  • “I can feel my heart beating quickly in my chest.”
  • “My shoulder muscles feel quite tense.”
  • “My hands are shaking a bit.”

Getting into Wise Mind, and staying there, can be very difficult. It takes practice and dedication, especially when you’re getting yelled at. It’s really easy to get pulled into Emotion Mind when someone insults you, or they attack or offend your product or your company.

You need to know how to get your brain involved, with all of its logic and reason, and balance the scales so that your heart isn’t making all the decisions. Likewise, if you’re only in Logic Mind, you’ll need to be able to tap into your feelings a bit so that your sentences are understood to the user who’s caught up in their emotions.

Our second challenge when working with frustrated customers is to help them get into Wise Mind, too. Don’t worry – it doesn’t involve any hypnosis or magical spells.  All you need is genuine and sincere validation.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb, validate, as follows: “Recognize or affirm the validity or worth of a person or their feelings or opinions; cause a person to feel valued or worthwhile.”

Just reading that feels good. Of course we all want to be valued, that our thoughts and opinions matter and that our feelings are valid. It feels great when someone actually takes the time to listen.

Validation works beautifully, because it acknowledges high intensity emotions. If it’s done well, validation works on a subconscious level, so that the person being validated simply feels like they’ve been listened to. If we’re caught up in our emotions, having someone validate how we’re feeling can have an immediate, soothing effect. Our shoulders drop, our heart rate slows and we can take a deep breath. Being heard feels good. That fiery emotion has been addressed, so it can now be moved aside to make room for logic.

Sometimes, when speaking with our users, what they say can be pretty harsh. But how we respond can make a world of difference.  The trick to validating well, is to have a keen sense of empathy. You have to not only see what emotion a user is feeling, but you also have to understand what that emotion feels like. I’d like to show a short video, which is great for explaining what empathy is…

Empathy is a skill, and as such, our ability to perform it can be improved upon with practice. This practice happens when you yourself feel uncomfortable, upset, or vulnerable. I’ve lived in countries where English is not widely spoken, so I know what it’s like to have to try and survive in a non-native language. This helps me communicate better with users, when I know English is a foreign language for them. I’ve also had one of my websites hacked, so I know the frustration of that and can use that to build trust with a user going through the same thing. And I know what it’s like to be stressed about a fast-approaching deadline and depending on others for help, so I know how good it feels to get answers quickly.

You can improve your ability to be empathetic, and in doing so, be able to communicate better with your users, by intentionally stepping out of your comfort zone. Learn a musical instrument, or a new coding language. Travel to a different country. Do something that scares you. Building upon your life experiences will make it easier for you to understand how others feel in similar situations.

So, now that you know how to tap into your empathy, you’ll be better equipped to genuinely and sincerely validate others. When you understand how they’re feeling, you’ll be able to echo their emotions using words. For example, the phrase “I know that this is very frustrating.” can be an extremely powerful antidote to someone who’s really frustrated. If you can truly empathize with them, you could also share a similar experience like, “I’ve had my site crash before, too, so I know how stressful this is.” Keep in mind, however, that if you’re not able to empathize personally, keep the validation more general. It can be detrimental to attempt to validate in a specific, yet insincere, way, as the person who’s upset may see it as patronizing.

Knowing more about empathy and the power of validation, let’s run through another scene of The Angry Customer. Scene 3 – Wise Mind.

Customer: After updating your stupid plugin, no one can pay for their orders! I’m losing thousands of dollars each day and it’s your fault! This is URGENT!

Me: I completely understand how vital it is to have your store accepting orders. Let’s figure this out quickly and get things working again! Are you able to send me your login credentials, so I can take a look?

Customer: Thank you! A customer emailed me about the trouble, and it seems like the loading icon in the checkout just spins and spins. Here’s my login info.

Me: It sounds like there’s a plugin conflict somewhere. Let’s run through some troubleshooting steps…

Ahhh.  That’s the exchange we’re looking for. Once the user trusts that I’m on their side, we can solve the problem together. Let me dissect this exchange and I’ll explain why things went so well:

First, I imagined myself in the user’s shoes – the skill of empathy – and thought about how I would feel.  “I completely understand…” Those words told them that I know what it’s like to be in their position, and that can help them feel less alone in their struggle.

Next, I made them feel listened to by echoing their words using a synonym.  They used urgent, so I used vital. I could have also said critical or crucial. I just made sure to match their level of emotion in my choice of language.

Finally, I reiterated that we’re on the same team by using the word  “Let’s”. The word builds trust and affirms to the user that we need each other to help resolve the problem. That is, after all, what we both want.

Welcome, everyone, to Wise Mind. Now that we’re all here, it makes us more open to hearing possibilities for solutions. This is because our logical brains are no longer getting blocked our emotional hearts.

As I explained earlier, solving problems requires heavy use of Logic Mind. So, once you’ve met the user in Wise Mind, both of you will be able to travel to Logic Mind together. And it’s there that you’ll be able to communicate more effectively, and find a solution.

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but at no point during this presentation did I mention anything about apologizing to the user. In the same way that making an insincere attempt at validation will likely lead to more user frustration, a disingenuous apology can also fuel more anger. I’m a strong believer that the word “sorry” should only be used in a couple of circumstances:

  1. When you actually feel bad for what the user is going through. In this case, you can even combine your apology with a dash of empathy. For example, “I’m sorry that our documentation is so confusing. I hadn’t noticed that before, so I’m going to work on making things more clear.”
  2. If you, your product or your company is actually to blame for the trouble that the user is dealing with. Taking responsibility for a mistake can be refreshing and validating for them. It’s nice to hear that you’re willing to own up to the problem, and it opens the door for you to restore their trust. For example, “I’m so sorry that this bug in our latest update caused such trouble with your site. Once we get it fixed, I’ll extend your license for another year.”

So, as I wrap up here, I’d like to remind you of some of the big takeaways from today:

  • Be mindful of your state of mind. When communicating with your users, how often are you in Wise Mind?
  • Practice getting into Wise Mind, and then practice staying there. People caught in emotion mind are all around you in real life, so the opportunities to practice this skill are everywhere.
  • Use empathy to help validate how others are feeling. Remember that you can improve your ability to empathize by intentionally putting yourself in positions where you’re uncomfortable or vulnerable.
  • Apologize only when necessary, when you’re truly sorry or if blame falls on you or your company somehow.


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