I have been training groups for many years now, but each and every one teaches me something new - and what I learned from my most recent group was truly magical.
I was teaching a very engaged group of employees at a state university how to communicate with customers last week, and was talking about what I call the three "octane levels" of acknowledgement:
1) The first is observation, where you simply observe the other person's feelings: for example, "I can tell by your tone of voice you are pretty upset about this."
2) The second is validation, where you make it clear the other person's feelings are valid: for example, "No one likes to pay an extra fee for this."
3) The third and highest level is identification, where you personally identify with the person's agenda: for example, "I would be upset if this happened to me too."
The higher the octane level, the better the other person feels. You can't always use the highest octane level, of course: for example, when someone says, "I was so mad I smashed my fist against the wall," you can't respond with, "I often feel like smashing my fist too." But you can always say things like, "This situation obviously bothered you a great deal. Tell me about it." When you choose the right octane level, you start connecting with people with people instead of arguing with them.
So here is where the magic came in. Normally I ask people for an example of this, I get one, and we move on. This time, the audience was so engaged, people were building on each other's examples and making it better and better - as TV chef Emeril might say, they were kicking it up a notch.
I had thrown out a scenario for them where someone was trying to transfer their credits from an unaccredited Bible school to this fully-accredited university. Normally, of course, most people would respond, "I'm sorry sir, we can't do that." So first, someone raises his hand and gives a pleasant but mild acknowledgement like "I can see this issue is important to you." Next another person raises her hand and says, "You put in a lot of hard work to earn these credits."
Before long, people were really getting in the spirit of this and saying things like, "You clearly worked hard and learned a lot of new things. Now let's explore some options for turning that good work into an accredited degree at our school, such as testing and prior learning assessment." And you could feel the tension drain out of the room with a situation these people often struggled with in real life.
So the lesson for you - and me - is to take your own most difficult customer situations, get your team thinking about good acknowledgements for them, and start workshopping them as a group until they are polished and perfected - and then teach everyone to use them. And watch everything change about your customer relationships.