How Highly Sensitive People Can Cope with Bad Customers

As a highly sensitive person, it seems almost paradoxical that I wound up working in the food and beverage service industry. It’s a noisy, fast-paced career in which you sink or swim. I started bussing tables at 14 (before I knew I was highly sensitive), and ever since I’ve been a hostess, waitress, barista, and bartender.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of things I’ve enjoyed about food and beverage service. It’s good exercise, I’ve always had coworkers and customers who’ve made it fun, and it can be rewarding both financially and psychologically.

But it’s a roller coaster.

In my mid-twenties I started reading up on principles of Buddhism, and I wanted the emotional peace described therein. I started meditating and doing everything in my power to build a soothing, even-keeled environment for myself.

There was only one problem: my job.

How does a sensitive person maintain their Zen when an angry customer is hurling offensive accusations about his order getting messed up? What do you do when meditation isn’t enough?

When Emotional Violence Is Directed at You

It’s true that our sensitivity makes us more vulnerable to negative emotions like anger, aggression, and hostility, but it also gives us wonderful empathy. It’s easy for us to “see” through other people’s eyes, and it’s that gift you should use when a customer has treated you poorly.

Imagine being that person. You’ll recognize that the customer’s negative feelings are coming from somewhere. This will help engage your sympathies, and understanding is the key to compassion and inner peace.

What works for me is to create a narrative and play it like a movie in my head. I’ll start the movie with the customer waking up in the morning and I’ll continue rolling up to the point of our meeting. Sometimes I’ll start the movie at a much earlier point in time. The detailed story line helps put me in their shoes.

While in the customer’s shoes, I ask myself what sort of things might cause the customer to act out, and I incorporate them into my narrative. Is the customer lonely? Do they have people to talk to? Maybe they experienced a divorce recently, or maybe their health or the health of a loved one is in trouble. Maybe they just don’t feel well today and it’s making them impatient. Maybe, delving deeper into the psychological side of things, the problem stems from their youth.

Of course, none of these stories are meant to be diagnostic. They simply help me remember that we’re all human beings who experience fear and pain, and sometimes we’re ill-equipped to handle those feelings. As sensitive people, we can especially sympathize with that.

What to Do When You Can’t Shake It

As much as the visualization method has helped me cope with bitter customers, it hasn’t always saved me. Not long ago at a coffee shop, I felt so demoralized by one customer that I started using the visualization technique in the middle of the transaction to keep my cool. Suffice it to say, it didn’t work. At one point she stood right next to me and, as if I were invisible, loudly told her partner that I deliberately stopped her from purchasing a product she wanted and how poor my customer service skills were. It was all I could take, and I wondered how I was going to hold it together.

So this is what I did. I quickly decided I was going to finish ringing her up, calmly walk away from the register, and ask my manager to excuse me from customer interactions for a short while so I could collect my nerves. I took a deep breath and did just that.

And you know what? My manager was completely supportive and I took my leave. I learned three important things right then and there:

  1. It’s okay to temporarily sequester yourself after an exchange that seriously upsets you. Sometimes everyone needs some space to process an emotional experience, and while it seems like common sense, highly sensitive people will often deny themselves this necessity because of a misplaced feeling of responsibility, like we somehow caused it and should suffer in silence. We didn’t, we shouldn’t, and we’re entitled to remove ourselves from a hostile work environment.
  2. Other people will understand. I’m often afraid that I’ll be chastised for being “overly sensitive” when in fact that’s rarely been the case. Who in customer service hasn’t dealt with nightmare customers? We all have, and it seems to me that food and beverage employees want to offer each other emotional support in these situations. It helps us feel good about ourselves and gives us solidarity with one another.
  3. Sharing is an important step in dissipating negative emotions. Just telling someone how you’re feeling lightens the burden. And who knows? They might even show you a funny cat vine to cheer you up.

If you don’t live in a Buddhist monastery then you’re probably going to face emotional challenges with other people whether you work in a restaurant or not. How other people act is out of our control, and we certainly can’t dial back our sensitivity. What we can do is use the tools at our disposal to recover, to come out the other side in one piece and feeling good about ourselves. Your imagination and your colleagues are part of your support network (and if your workmates and boss aren’t supportive, you have the right to find a work environment that is).

Do you work in the food and beverage service industry? What are some things you do to manage difficult customers?

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