Business Psychology

Article No. 379
Customer Psychology, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Scraps of Meaning

Researcher follows mediators and learns lessons for reducing negative emotions and resolving conflicts.

Sensemaking is a process of creating and assembling scraps of meaning toward the goal of answering two questions: "What's going on here?" and "What do I do now?" Sensemaking occurs whenever we find ourselves in a situation that surprises us or seems unclear. We often involve others in our sensemaking, and when we consider the scraps of meaning that others offer, it is called sensegiving. Sensemaking and sensegiving combine to form a dynamic process of updating that works toward the goal of producing a complete answer to the first question and an intention to take effective action. It's a nice, logical process, but there's often an emotional component that can ruin everything. Emotions, after all, are not logical.

When customers have problems in our businesses, it comes as a surprise to them, and it triggers sensemaking. So far, so good. Problems arise when strong negative emotions enter in. The emotions trump the logical process. When strong emotions dominate attention, updating in the normal sensemaking and sensegiving process comes to a halt. The only information that gets in serves to support and amplify the negative emotions. Tempers rise, and destructive actions follow and spread to others. "Company XYZ cheated me/treated me badly. I'm mad as hell. I'm going to do everything I can to hurt them, and my friends are going to help me!" When this process gets started, it can spread like wildfire, and it's not good for business.

Emily Heaphy from the University of Rhode Island is interested in this problem, so she selected a setting where she was very likely to find it, and then she examined what they do and noticed how it worked for them. It was a welcome approach where the researcher becomes the student and asks the question "What are you doing about this, and how is it working?" She selected a hospital setting, and she learned that hospitals employ mediators as their response. Heaphy followed several of them and analyzed what they did and how it turned out, and she learned some techniques that we could employ in business settings. Here's the best of it.

First, you can blunt customers' strong negative emotions if you allow customers to express these emotions effectively to you. Two rules: you must not react emotionally yourself. Be a blank slate. You're collecting information, and their emotions are important to you, but they're not your emotions. Also, don't allow the customer to keep repeating negative emotions, amplifying them with each retelling. Once is enough; twice signals a need to end the conversation.

Second, collect scraps of meaning from everyone involved. If it's a conflict between two people, talk to both of them. Your goal is to construct a complete sensemaking account of your own, and you will know it is complete when you can explain the thinking and emotions of each person's actions. This explanation will make sense to you, and it develops partly by explaining it to a disinterested party, like a coworker or a spouse.

Third, reenter a customer's sensemaking process by selectively sharing your sensemaking account of the customer's problem. You're trying to help, so begin by recognizing and blunting strong negative emotions, and then offer an explanation and an action the customer can take to resolve the problem.

Finally, if customers resist your efforts to help, retell an account of the problem from the perspective of another person who was involved in the conflict or witnessed it. This retelling is your last chance to help. If these four techniques fail to quell the negative emotions and resolve the problem, you'll have to move on to other business.

Reference: Heaphy, Emily D. "DANCING ON HOT COALS": HOW EMOTION WORK FACILITATES COLLECTIVE SENSEMAKING. Academy of Management Journal, 60(2), 642-670.

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Keywords: Mediation, sensemaking, meaning, conflict resolution, emotion
Consult Subject Index for related research.

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