Have you ever had a bad day in your business? One where nothing seemed to go right and everywhere you turned, you encountered angry or upset people?

If this has never happened to you, you might just as well stop reading now, because the following probably won’t apply to you. (It also probably means that either a) you are uniquely blessed with all perfect days, or b) you are not actually in business!) However, if this description sounds at all familiar, then read on.

At one point or another, you have come into contact with people who were less than happy with you or your organization. It may have been because of a problem with a product or service, with something you said or did, or didn’t say or didn’t do, or something else that aggravated someone in your organization.

Whatever the problem, it’s always a challenge to deal effectively with upset people. Diffusing anger and handling difficult issues require special skills and practiced behaviors.

It’s hard to be calm and courteous when others are out of control. What can you do to keep your cool and resolve the issue when the person you’re talking with is upset, on a rampage and chewing you out?

Try following these five steps to soothe the situation.

1. Listen

The first and most important step is to listen, really listen to what the other person is saying.

Too often we don’t hear all that is being said because we are busy trying to come up with our own response. If you don’t fully understand why the other person is upset, you can’t possibly help with the solution. Besides, you may not actually need to come up with a brilliant response. Sometimes people just need to vent—to get whatever is bothering them off their chest.

If you are a good listener who does not interrupt and who lets other people finish what they have to say, you may be well on your way to a resolution. Often people calm down when they realize that you value them enough to hear them out. They may also hear themselves and recognize that they are overreacting or acting inappropriately.

If you’re meeting in person, let your body language reflect your attention as well. Use eye contact; lean in toward the other person; use appropriate facial expressions that show your interest.

If you do a good enough job with step one, you may not even need the next four!

2. Apologize

The second step is a particularly powerful step: apologize.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you actually think the problem was your fault. Perhaps there was a miscommunication, and the person you’re talking with thought you were ignoring her, when the truth was simply that you had never received her message. As an entrepreneur and someone who is creating your own business, the best posture to take is to assume responsibility for problems that happen, even if you didn’t directly cause them.

Tell the person that you are sorry. Your willingness to be accountable will have a positive effect. It may be that in order to be satisfied, all this person needs to hear is an apology (along with correcting or addressing whatever the original issue might have been).

Also, make your apology with complete sincerity. If your tone of voice doesn’t match your words, you’re wasting your breath.

3. Sympathize

Step three is to sympathize. Let people know that you can identify with their feelings and that you understand why they are upset. A simple and sincere statement validates the person’s emotions; it also says that you are not going to be argumentative. Once again, match your tone to your words.

4. Accept Responsibility

Step four is to accept responsibility for the situation and declare yourself as accountable.

While this sense of accepting accountability is implied in step two (your apology), it goes beyond that step. Being accountable means taking responsibility and stating the intention to do whatever it takes to make things right—to get them the product they ordered or the service they expected, or find a solution to whatever the issue was that caused the upset.

This step also puts things squarely on a positive, future-oriented track, and helps keep the person from dwelling on the past. You can’t help what has already happened, but you can come up with a solution to the problem or you will find someone who can.

5. Prepare for Action

Finally, decide how you can remedy the situation. Tell the person exactly what you will do, and when. If the issue was poor service, you will deliver better service immediately. Offer something extra or unexpected. Whenever you can provide a bonus of some sort or find some way to go the extra mile, the tiger before you will be transformed into a pussycat.

Hard to remember all this in the heat of the moment? No problem: you can use the acronym ASAP for calming angry people, each letter standing for a key part of the process. Once you have heard the person out, then

A — apologize;

S — sympathize;

A — accept responsibility; and

P — prepare to take action.

When you treat people with kindness, courtesy and respect, they will appreciate you and the company you represent. They will be more likely to join your organization or, if they are already a part of it, to stay with it. If they are customers, then when they need or want your product or service again, they will come back to you.

An appreciative customer will recommend you and your company to others by sharing the story of their dilemma that was resolved by your excellent customer service.

LYDIA RAMSEY is a business
etiquette expert and author of
Manners that Sell: Adding the Polish
that Builds Profits. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Times, Selling Power and Cosmopolitan.