Using drama in teaching employees to encounter people in their work
Customer service and interaction are central issues in work on a ship. But where can one find the strength to cope with each encounter, especially when facing a dissatisfied customer? The employees of Viking Line are coached to deal with customer encounters by using sociodrama.
We are in the meeting room of Mariella, one of Viking Line’s passenger ships. A group of ten employees are busy drawing and colouring. Satu-Mari Jansson, coach from Theatre-Works, has given the participants a task: “Express in a drawing things that you are proud of in your work, and things that you want to improve.”
The atmosphere is easy-going, now and then someone bursts out laughing. One person comments: “I don’t have any weaknesses.” The results are then posted on the wall, and each person in turn presents and explains their drawing. Jansson encourages the group members to comment or add more viewpoints.
– What do you say, does Ari have any other strengths? The workmates think that Ari’s description is accurate, but they add: sense of humour, positive outlook and a good attitude.
The on-going training project aims to improve the service concept and the employees’ and customers’ experiences related to it. Two hours of the first coaching session are behind: the participants, in pairs, have role-played actual situations in their work. Now they are concentrating on reflecting on their own identity.
– The aim of the coaching is to offer new tools and viewpoints to the personnel for doing their work. We also want the process to be enjoyable and fun, says restaurant manager Janne Lindholm, who is responsible for the kitchen and restaurant services of Viking Line.
There is a more personal touch in customer services
Lindholm, who has a long career on cruise liners, has seen the gradual change in customer services.
– Nowadays customer service means more than just being available and neatly dressed. Customers want personalized services. A waiter or waitress is seen as a host or hostess who welcomes people in a friendly manner. Now we are more casual and we chat more with the customers. This helps us to get to know the customers better and makes it easier to serve them and to recommend the right products.
– Encountering a person face-to-face is the starting point in all interaction, and a basic element in work, says researcher Päivi Hökkä from the University of Jyväskylä.
– It is the central skill in customer services. Mastering interaction helps coping at work and ensures job satisfaction. When an encounter is positive and motivating, also the customers perceive this. A positive atmosphere in the enterprise directly affects the satisfaction of the customers, and consequently the outcome. I guess you can say that the emotional atmosphere is the key issue for an enterprise.
You are empowered when you learn to accept that customers, your colleagues, and you yourself have emotions.
Janne Lindholm says that there are all kinds of customers on a ship: drivers of freight trucks, regular travellers, conference and meeting groups, and cruise passengers.
– So the encounters with customers can vary greatly at work, and sometimes quite challenging situations come up. When someone brings a large group of people to the ship, even a minor inconvenience can cause stress. For someone the cruise can be the highlight of the year, and may have been the target of saving for a long time. If the cruise doesn’t fulfil all expectations, problems may arise. A restaurant customer may be disappointed because a table by the window isn’t available, or the menu doesn’t have just what he wants.
Sociodrama as a tool
Satu-Mari Jansson’s TheatreWorks (www.theatreworks.fi) organizes training for work communities, and offers help in developing service concepts. She uses sociodrama, and also experienced professional actors take part in the activities. Jansson has studied drama pedagogics and adult education at the University of Helsinki. Her doctoral thesis describes the use of theatre and sociodrama as a new tool in coaching.
– Sociodrama helps to make theoretical issues more concrete, she explains.
– The group discussions don’t remain only on a theoretical level of talking about services. We can simulate actual situations which the employees confront in their daily work. The situations become tangible. Another strength of the method is the linking of emotions to the simulations, so an incident feels real. In addition, the method is built on the idea of constant training. The interaction between people is never ‘ready’ – it is a continuous development process.
Once we got going, we started to get lots of ideas for our own work.
Jansson knows that not everybody likes to perform in front of a group, so she takes this into consideration.
– In my coaching, I look at each person’s personality. People are individuals, so that determines what kind of methods I use. I plan the workshops beforehand, but when I meet the participants and observe their state of mind, I can quickly improvise solutions and select suitable activities. If, for instance, the participants haven’t slept well because they have been a bit nervous anticipating the coaching situation, I take that into account and have them do relaxing warm-up exercises.
When she coaches, Hansson observes and listens to people carefully: what can I expect from a person and how deep can I go with them. The idea is to help people learn a better way of interacting with customers.
– I give feedback and guide the group members flexibly on their own terms. For example, some individuals are very sensitive, or they may be unwilling to accept feedback. In some cases, people may be surprised by the changes they see in themselves and their habitual ways of interacting.
– Furthermore, whenever someone’s sensitive issues are opened for discussion, they also need to be closed. I always make sure that the matter is dealt with, and the person is not left confused or embarrassed. If there are many problems between the members of the work community, people often are in a very vulnerable state of mind. The coach has a great responsibility in such cases.
Emotions are a part of work life
According to Jansson, emotions play a big role in work and in encounters between people.
– It is often thought that emotions are not involved in work, but after all, we are holistic beings. For instance, in the Viking Line workshop we talked about the state of mind in which you come to work. Even if we try hard to hide our feelings, it shows. It would be better to say straight out that “I have a bad day today”, rather than try to hide it.
In the training sessions we deal with issues together in the group. We discuss ways of dealing with emotions, and I also try to give practical tips. It is important to be ready to encounter a customer whose negative emotions run high. You feel empowered when you learn to accept that customers, your colleagues, and you yourself have emotions, says Jansson.
Sociodrama helps to make many theoretical issues tangible. We are able to simulate actual situations encountered by the employees in their daily work.
According to researcher Päivi Hökkä, the study of emotions has increased in work life research.
– Studies have shown that positive emotions increase innovativeness and flexibility. Negative emotions, on the other hand, restrict thinking, and lower the tolerance of views that differ from your own. In challenging situations the ability to stay calm provides more latitude, so that your thinking stays flexible, and you can find well-functioning solutions.
New ideas for your own work
After the first session of the Viking Line workshop, the employees go their own ways. Peter Karlsson, a cook, took part in the coaching and says that he hasn’t been in this kind of training before. He admits that drama-based working seemed a bit strange at first.
– But once I got into the action, it was fun. The beginning was well organized. First there were group tasks and nobody stood out, so it was easier to get into the action. When we really got going, we started to have a lot of ideas for our own work. This got me thinking what could be done differently.
Jaana Reen, cook and shift manager, had also enjoyed the session.
– I got some ideas on how to react better in some situations, although we weren’t able to solve all kinds of possible situations yet. I realized that I could control some incidents with my own behaviour. I recommend this kind of training for employees who encounter different kinds of customers at work.
Satu-Mari Jansson knows that when people are in a hurry and concentrating on working, they don’t have time to stop and analyse their work.
– This kind of training is useful for the work community to think about who we are, what our work is and why we do it, and who our customers are. It was a joy to see how openly and honestly the participants in the Viking Line groups spoke about their own development targets. This naturally led to an atmosphere of trust. Workmates usually support each other, and when the coaching reveals what the other person thinks of himself, it is so much easier to support that person in their daily work.•
4 tips on how to control your own emotions in challenging encounters
- Nervous tension or stress tends to make your breathing superficial. Controlling your breathing is the fastest and easiest way to signal your brain that everything is fine.
- Remember: signs of tension, such as sweating palms or rapid heartbeat, are natural and can improve your performance. If you think of these signs as an indication of enthusiasm, the effects of the tension diminish. Say to yourself: My palms are sweating, so I must be really excited.
- Pause for a moment, and listen actively to what the other person is expressing. If he or she shouts at you, try to figure out what the underlying cause may be: disappointment, fear, or maybe he just isn’t able to act differently. If his behaviour annoys you, think: Does he just want your attention? In this way you create an emotional bond with him, rather than seeing him as an adversary.
- Ask yourself: Who do I want to be in this situation, what do I really want? This takes you back to your own values. Then ask yourself: What should I do next? You will then be more ready to ask the other person: What happened from your perspective? This helps you to see the incident from the other person’s viewpoint, and opens the door to more constructive interaction.
Three levels – The basic elements of a good encounter
Awareness of yourself and your professional identity
The starting point of an encounter is knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, and awareness of your professional identity. The roles in work life change often and external factors affect them. It is therefore worthwhile to pause now and then to think about your own professional identity and history: What have you done so far, where are you professionally now, how did you get where you are, and why are you doing namely this work?
Your own values and your mission in life are also important. What are your hopes concerning your present work? What are your goals for the future? Awareness of your own identity helps you to deal with unpredictable and challenging situations. It also helps you to carry out your work with your whole personality, with your own strengths and weaknesses. When you really know yourself, you are prepared to encounter other people.
Your relationship to your work community and its identity
It is not enough to analyse your own professional identity, if you are not seen or heard in your work community. That is why it is important to go over together and practise the skills needed for encountering, listening actively and interacting. Some important questions are: What is my role and place in the work community, and what are the goals of the whole work community?
Regardless of our work task, each of us should know who we are and where we are going. In this way we can build together “our narrative”. If your own perception of yourself and the expectations of those around you are in discrepancy, it creates stress. When the work culture is fair, every employee is seen and heard, and the workplace provides support, common rules of the game, sufficient resources and clear responsibilities. When the fundamentals of the work environment are in order, they provide security and a feeling of empowerment, so that the employees can be genuinely present in their encounters with customers, and can give them the best possible service.
Every person has the need to be seen and heard in a just and fair manner. Emotions are often present in customer encounters. Employees therefore need basic information about emotions and the skills for handling emotions: what they are and how they affect us. People sense each other’s emotional states and they are transmitted easily from one person to another – for example, feelings of dissatisfaction and disappointment.
In challenging situations it is important to be aware of what is happening in yourself and how it affects others. Knowledge helps you to stay calm, to accept the customer’s emotions and to understand them. When you recognize your own emotions and the customer’s emotions, and are able to react calmly, you will communicate to him or her: “I see, hear and understand you, and I am not intimidated by your emotions”, or “I want to encounter, understand and pay attention to you”. Then you are in the clear.
Päivi Hökkä, Doctor of Education, University of Jyväskylä, www.tsr.fi -> see number 117357.