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April 3, 2023

Restaurant Conflict: Training for restaurant staff in facing anti-social behaviour

Restaurants are venues for conflict – ask any staff

Anti-social behaviour and restaurant conflict is a major problem in many public places in the UK. It can take many forms, from minor disturbances to serious restaurant conflict incidents that cause harm to staff and customers. This essay will explore some of the key issues of anti-social behaviour in UK restaurants.

Alex – a senior trainer with Dynamis – spent time with a well-known restaurant chain with eateries all over the UK, delivering conflict management and de-escalation training to their teams. Attendees on his restaurant conflict training included Bar Manager, Bartender, Door Host, Restaurant Manager and other roles.

We sat down to discuss some of the sector-specific problems restaurant teams experience, as well as what staff need from their conflict management and de-escalation training.

What is Restaurant Conflict?

One of the most common types of anti-social behaviour in UK restaurants is verbal abuse. This can take the form of customers shouting at staff, using offensive language, or making threats. In some restaurant conflict, customers may even physically assault staff members.

Another issue is the use of mobile phones. While it may seem harmless, the constant ringing and beeping of phones can be disruptive to other diners and staff. Additionally, some customers may use their phones to take photos or videos without permission, which can be a breach of privacy.

A growing concern is the use of social media to post negative reviews or comments about a restaurant. This can be damaging to a restaurant’s reputation and may deter potential customers from visiting.

Finally, there is the restaurant conflict issue of customers who refuse to pay their bill. This can be a deliberate tactic to avoid paying, or it may be the result of a genuine complaint. Either way, it can be a difficult and sometimes confrontational situation for staff to handle.

Impact of restaurant conflict on staff and the mood of your eatery

The impact of anti-social behaviour on restaurants can be significant. Restaurant conflict can create a hostile environment for staff and customers, reduce sales and revenue, and damage the reputation of the restaurant. In some cases, it may even lead to closures or job losses.

The psychological impact on staff cannot be overlooked. Dealing with abusive or difficult customers can be extremely stressful and can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

Measures to Address Restaurant Conflict

Restaurants can take a number of measures to address anti-social behaviour and conflict. One approach is to train staff in conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques. By providing staff with the skills to handle difficult situations, they can feel more confident and in control when dealing with unruly customers.

Restaurants can also implement policies and procedures to deal with anti-social behaviour. This may include a zero-tolerance policy for verbal or physical abuse, the use of security cameras to deter bad behaviour, and a clear process for dealing with complaints and disputes.

Finally, restaurants can engage with customers and the community to build a positive and respectful environment. This can involve promoting positive behaviour through social media campaigns or community outreach programmes.

Anti-social behaviour is a serious issue in UK restaurants that can have significant impacts on staff, customers, and the restaurant’s bottom line. While there is no one solution to the problem, by implementing effective policies, training staff in conflict resolution techniques, and engaging with customers and the community, restaurants can create a safer and more pleasant environment for everyone.

What are some restaurant conflict management situations that staff have to deal with?

Common conflict situations for staff in restaurants involve managing antisocial behaviours from some customers. These vary from general challenges or rudeness from some patrons, to the extremes of groups of individuals using antisocial tactics to get out of paying for their meals. Example, the restaurants we worked with had customers who would add hair or shards of broken glass to their food at the end of the meal and would then call a manager over to say, “Look, there’s glass in this food, we’re not paying for it.”

One of the most difficult and volatile conflict situations staff have to manage is when a couple come in for their dinner and they are involved in a domestic argument. Most people have a social contract which says ‘don’t argue in public’. So when this does happen, straight away there’s an inhibiting factor on the staff because most likely they don’t act like this in their personal lives. It can cause embarrassment, which in turn can cause fear or anxiety, which is a stumbling block to the good communication needed to de-escalate the situation.

In a restaurant conflict situation like this there’s also more of a risk both parties will turn on the server or manager. The customers can feel embarrassed – their self-esteem, or sense of status is being undermined by the incident and this can make them triggered, volatile and primed for conflict. It’s really hard for the staff member. They have to choose, which individual from the relationship will be the voice of reason in the situation and be the one they can communicate with effectively?

Retail Conflict and Safety Training from Dynamis

How does Dynamis ensure the restaurant sector gets the best conflict management and de-escalation training?

It’s about asking the right questions at the outset of the relationship with the client. We drill into the organisation’s particular needs to create a detailed Training Needs Analysis. The TNA shapes our planning of restaurant conflict management training so it’s the highest quality and fit for their unique settings. We won’t do ‘off-the-shelf’ training.

Because Dynamis’ restaurant conflict management training is principles led and scenario-driven, our trainers can refine the TNA further when they arrive in the training room with the staff. We ask, “What’s happening for you? Tell me some examples of what’s going on for you in your workplace that requires this training.” Getting feedback from the people on the ground, who have the most encounters with the customers, is so important if we are going to create the best training intervention.

Once we’ve got the context fully set, the training is shaped over the next few hours so it’s as relevant as possible to the people in the room. Our aim is always to equip staff so they can deal with the real life situations and issues they are actually experiencing.

What are some top tips for restaurant staff to manage conflict situations with customers?

Typically, and leveraging our content partner Vistelar’s framework, we want to enable a team so that they are better at:

  • Recognising the phases of conflict and crisis behaviour – the 6 Cs of conflict
  • “Treating people with dignity, by showing respect – even when we disagree”
  • Making sure everyday interactions foster a healthy Social Contract (Non-Escalation)
  • Professionally dealing with interactions which have the potential to blow-up  (De-Escalation)
  • Sensitively dealing with Cognitive Difficulties with short-, medium- or long-term causes (Crisis Management)
  • Responding to situations / not reacting (the Showtime Mindset)
  • Using Listening and Persuasion language to lead the conversation
  • Redirections, to get back on task and
  • Taking Appropriate Action to Keep Everyone Safe
  • Closure – leaving people better than when we first encountered them.

Specifically in the restaurants, we focussed on specific aspects of our Vistelar conflict-management method:

  1. ADOPT A ‘SHOWTIME MINDSET’ FOR EVERY INTERACTION ON THE RESTAURANT FLOOR:People who work in restaurants and hospitality know how important performing is to building a thriving business and customer experience.Being able to perform is equally important in conflict situations. Inserting yourself into situations like the domestic argument described above is against most people’s social contract. We probably feel it’s not our place. We probably have some anxiety, thinking “Why are they doing this in public?” There can be shock – and the problem with shock is it can cause people to freeze and not be effective in their role.We take staff through strategies and techniques that help cope with the turbulence accompanying conflict. A key part of this is teaching them how to adopt a ‘Showtime Mindset’. This includes breath control to control heart rate so that communication and de-escalation is more effective. Then we design ‘pressure tests’ so that staff can practice how to use these techniques in scenarios, so when they step out on to the restaurant floor at their next shift they can easily access and reproduce the newly-learned tactics.
  2. WORK TO ESTABLISH POSITIVE RAPPORT AS SOON AS POSSIBLE:Prevention is better than cure, always! Establishing positive, appropriate rapport with customers affects how much servers are tipped and whether or not they will become repeat customers. Crucially, having staff who know how to build strong rapport also reduces the likelihood of a conflict occurring and how quickly a conflict can be de-escalated.It begins with how staff introduce themselves to customers. At Dynamis we teach learners the concept known as the ‘Universal Greeting.’ “Hi, I’m (name). I’m your server today.” It’s simple but so important. Once you’ve attached a name to yourself, you’ve answered two unspoken questions humans want to answers to in any new interaction: “Who are you?” and “What do you want?” Then, by asking a relevant question, the server can invite interaction and rapport is built through the universal greeting. This might be “Can I get anyone a drink right now?” or “Are there any allergies in your party?”If a child is with a parent and staff are trying to give them options for food, they have to legally ask about allergies. At this moment we might recommend tapping a relevant question onto the end of the enquiry which expresses engagement and care for the customer’s experience. For example:”Does anyone have any allergies?”“No. No allergies.”“Okay, what do you like so we can get something that you’re really going to enjoy?”This takes less than four seconds and straight away the server has gone above and beyond to build rapport. If there’s a restaurant with a hundred people and there’s rapport between all the servers and all the customers, the risk of any conflict is reduced significantly.
  3. PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR POSITIONING AND BODY LANGUAGE:Restaurants can be very close environments – tables are often close together with narrow corridors between the tables. How do staff get into that space and deliver a high standard of service? How do they use their nonverbal communication to send the right signals to customers whilst at the same time keeping themselves in a safe position?In our Vistelar-based conflict management and de-escalation training, we pay attention to environment and positioning. Staff are encouraged to consider their position in relation to the customer and practice this in scenarios.In a restaurant setting, customers are usually sitting down and the servers are normally standing. An adult likes a server to stand, but a child usually prefers a server to crouch down to their level. So if you’re serving in a family environment where there are lots of children, lowering your eye level so that everyone can be engaged in eye contact will be appreciated and build rapport. However if serving a couple out on a date, standing is more respectful. Maintaining an extra 12 inches of distance where possible may sound really specific, but giving a couple the extra bit of distance could be the difference between rapport and no rapport.We also help staff develop non-escalation and de-escalation skills as customers progress through their dining experience. The starting point is what we call situational awareness – are you paying attention to the situation? This then leads to a key question: what’s an appropriate level of interaction with that customer at this time? Do they look like they’re deep in conversation? Leave them alone. Do they look like they want something? Given the British culture with reticence, some customers can feel too awkward to call a server over. So how do staff spot those cues and how do they broach this in a way that shows respect? Again, the universal greeting is so useful here: “Hi, is everything okay?” A relevant question is presented by the staff member in a way that shows care rather than just, “Oh, you all right? What do you want?”
  4. USE REDIRECTIONS TO DE-ESCALATE CONFLICT:In restaurant settings a useful tool in managing conflict can be to provide a diversion to any critical point. We call this ‘redirection’. Redirections serve as a pattern interrupt; stopping the pattern of behaviour that’s going on by introducing a new point of focus that causes a pause, which then helps bring the other person round to a goal.For example, a server on the training once had to deal with a couple who were having a huge argument over their dinner. He used a fabulous redirection. He made his way over to the table and said, “Hi guys, yes, it’s dessert time. We want to give you a free dessert!”The response was “You want to what? Hang on, what?” The arguing couple’s train of thought was interrupted and the server could then get some communication through: “The brownies are really nice today.” Getting them to think about something sweet rather than focussing on how tense things were in their relationship was a great tactic to de-escalate that conflict.
  5. CONSIDER HOW THE NEEDS OF A PARTY MIGHT AFFECT ATMOSPHERE:If you build enough of a positive atmosphere in any space where you have a large volume of people, it ripples out to affect others. Customers enjoy their experience and want to come back – so building longevity in the business. However there’s also truth in the saying ‘you can’t please all the people all the time’. If 90 out of a hundred are having a good time in a restaurant and 10 are not, how can staff mitigate that so it doesn’t spread?We help restaurant staff develop skills of ‘professional curiousity’ so they can be sensitive and responsive to the unique needs of customers they serve. For example a training scenario might include managing a wake, where customers are dealing with extremes of sadness and grief. Does this party require a clear divide between them and the rest of the restaurant, for their benefit as well as other customers? Or is another course of action advisable?
  6. THINK WIDELY ABOUT HOW A CUSTOMER’S SENSES INFORM THEIR EXPERIENCE AND MANAGE THE ENVIRONMENT APPROPRIATELY:Restaurants are providing an experience, not just food. If the expectation of that experience is different from the sensory feedback a customer receives when they enter, this will be problematic.For example, smell is a powerful sense with strong associations for memory. When a customer enters a restaurant and the first thing they smell is bleach, this can be off-putting. If the restaurant is an Italian and there are Chinese decorations on the walls, the dissonance customers feel can affect their ability to relax, elevating their heart rate and causing anxiety.The elevation of heart rate from adrenaline causes the blood to move away from the stomach wall. In a restaurant, this means you’ve got people who were hungry when they came in and now they are not hungry. In extreme cases, with a really high heart rate, you’re talking about people who are now nauseous. That’s not a good thing to happen in a restaurant.Scenario training gives staff the experience in how to prevent and settle situations like these. Here the focus will be on reducing stimulation for the customer, providing support and potentially isolating them if necessary. Staff need to know how to use these skills, but it’s so much easier to set the tone from the very start. The aim should be to create a supportive atmosphere for customers from the minute they set foot in the door, because once people feel safe and supported, you can build rapport and then deliver the service in a way that doesn’t just meet expectations but surpasses them.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR MANAGEMENT to manage restaurant conflict:

Ensure staff know what they are talking about when it comes to the food and drink your establishment offers. Events like staff tastings when a new menu comes out are powerful. If staff know what the food actually tastes like, they can deliver succinct and accurate descriptions when advising customers about food items they may enjoy, which builds rapport. If the customer’s expectations are then met when the dish is delivered, that server is validated. Perhaps there’s even a little bit of halo effect: “She said this was going to be amazing and it was amazing. Wow. She’s great!” This is win-win for both parties – the server is empowered in their role and the customer is satisfied.

Finally, we’d recommend managers know what conflict management training the security team have had and assess how this fits with other training received by staff. This is particularly important where restaurants do not directly employ their security staff: there is potential for a critical failure if different teams in the restaurant are on different pages when they are managing and de-escalating conflict situations.

In contrast, a shared training experience can help every member of staff recognise where in the process the team is when a conflict scenario arises. “Oh, right, we’re getting to a point of escalation, this could be a situation that needs a manager, or could I switch in with my colleague here? Could I offer some support?” They will be better placed to work as a whole team to manage and de-escalate the situation.

This article is an interview with a senior trainer from Dynamis who has been providing conflict management and de-escalation training to restaurant staff from a major chain. The interview covers common conflict situations in restaurants, how Dynamis tailors their training to the specific needs of each client, and top tips for managing conflict situations with customers. The document also includes recommendations for management, such as ensuring staff are knowledgeable about the food and drink offered and assessing the conflict management training of security teams.

Restaurant Conflict: summary

  • Common conflict situations for staff in restaurants
    • Managing antisocial behaviors from customers
      • General challenges or rudeness from some patrons
      • Groups of individuals using antisocial tactics to get out of paying for their meals
      • Customers adding hair or shards of broken glass to their food to avoid paying
    • Domestic arguments between couples
      • Embarrassment and inhibition for staff to manage the situation
      • Risk of both parties turning on the server or manager
  • Dynamis’ scenario-based approach to conflict management and de-escalation training for the restaurant sector
    • Detailed Training Needs Analysis to create tailored training
    • Principles-led and scenario-driven training
    • Refinement of training based on feedback from staff on the ground
  • Top tips for restaurant staff to manage conflict situations with customers
    • Adopt a ‘Showtime Mindset’ for every interaction on the restaurant floor
      • Strategies and techniques to cope with turbulence accompanying conflict
      • Breath control to control heart rate for effective communication and de-escalation
      • ‘Pressure tests’ to practice newly-learned tactics
    • Work to establish positive rapport as soon as possible
      • Establish positive, appropriate rapport with customers to reduce conflict and foster repeat customers
      • Use the ‘Universal Greeting’ to introduce oneself and invite interaction
      • Use relevant questions to show care and build rapport
    • Pay attention to positioning and body language
      • Consider position in relation to the customer and practice in scenarios
      • Maintain appropriate distance and use nonverbal communication to send the right signals
      • Use situational awareness to determine appropriate level of interaction with the customer
    • Use redirections to de-escalate conflict
      • Provide a diversion to any critical point to interrupt the pattern of behavior
      • Use relevant distraction to bring the other person round to a goal
    • Consider how the needs of a party might affect atmosphere
      • Develop skills of ‘professional curiosity’ to be sensitive and responsive to the unique needs of customers
      • Mitigate negative impact on atmosphere by creating a supportive atmosphere for customers from the start
    • Think widely about how a customer’s senses inform their experience and manage the environment appropriately
      • Reduce stimulation for the customer, provide support, and potentially isolate them if necessary
  • Recommendations for management
    • Ensure staff know what they are talking about when it comes to food and drink
      • Events like staff tastings empower staff and build rapport with customers
    • Assess conflict management training of security teams and ensure it fits with other training received by staff
      • Shared training experience can help every member of staff recognize where in the process the team is when a conflict scenario arises
      • Work as a whole team to manage and de-escalate the situation

For your interest, there is also a Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace campaign from the British Hospitality Association here:

https://www.ukhospitality.org.uk/page/PreventingSexualHarassmentChecklist

This is an excellent article from The Caterer magazine about lateral violence and aggression in catering teams:

https://thecaterer.com/people/staffing/harassment-fair-kitchens-resolving-conflict

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Gerard O'Dea


Gerard O'Dea is the Director of Training for Dynamis. Training Advisor, Speaker, Author and Expert Witness on Personal Safety, Conflict Management and Physical Interventions, he is the European Advisor for Vistelar Conflict Management, a global programme focussing on the spectrum of human conflict.

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