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July 11, 2019

Conflict Management Training for Utilities Engineers

Conflict Management Training for Utilities Engineers

The Dynamis team recently completed a project to enhance the safety of the field workforce from a major UK energy utilities company.

Imagine this with me for a second:

“Your job is to travel out into the community, enter a completely unknown person’s home and spend 2-3 hours there installing equipment. You’re a competent professional and you understand the technical elements of your job extremely well, even though you work with gas and electricity – either of which have a habit of hurting people when things go wrong!  The funny thing is, probably the most unpredictable part of your job are the people you meet, in the homes you work in, in the communities you visit as part of your work.

You’re a utilities engineer working in gas, electricity, water or other utility provision.  You’re probably a man, but an increasing number of engineers are women. You gravitated towards this kind of work because you like solving technical problems and have a technical lean-in, but the truth of the work is that you need to be good at reading people, delivering excellent customer service and anticipating and meeting people’s needs in regard to your area of expertise.

Who knew that you would have to go on a course to learn about personal safety and conflict management?”

This was the scenario we developed with our utilities customer earlier this year when we were asked to develop and tailor a course which would help the field engineer teams to enhance their risk awareness and their ability to anticipate and head-off any personal safety issues which they might encounter.  It is a testament to the company’s forward-thinking and safety-focus that, despite a very strong customer-centric ethos, and a very (very!) short list of higher-risk incidents of aggression or violence, they were determined to have their field force trained to a high standard.


Following our ethos of working from a detailed Training Needs Analysis with every customer, which is a stringent requirement of our accreditation from the Institute of Conflict Management, we began with a period of discovery with the client to tease out the detail of the engineers’ day-to-day work.

We stuck a crowbar under the engineers’ daily task lists and lifted the lid, discovering a timeline of common tasks that they routinely carry out, in order to start putting shape to their work, so that we could then ask informed questions about when, where and how they might encounter personal safety or conflict risk.

We are particularly interested in something called Initial Contact, which is a core part of the Vistelar Conflict Management curriculum through which we see the world here at Dynamis.  In prying open the details of the engineers’ initial contact with clients, we discovered all kinds of habits and customary questions that they ask in order to make sure that visits proceed in the smoothest way possible.

Vistelar Master Trainer Gary Klugiewicz says:

“What if we spent more time focussing on Non-Escalation of incidents…wouldn’t it mean that we spent less time on De-Escalation later on?”

The utilities engineers were excellent at Initial Contact and understood well its role in establishing the bedrock on which a safe and successful visit would be built.

Veteran utilities engineers on our course spoke about the various strategies they use to interact with the client, establishing a supportive environment for their visit to the person’s home.  All of the engineers could quickly and clearly describe when asked, what the characteristics of a smooth visit would be.

  • customers were well informed about the nature of the visit
  • the work site itself provided no unreasonable surprises or difficulties
  • customers were welcoming and engaged with the reason for the visit
  • people (and animals) were respectful of the engineer’s need to work on his tasks
  • customers were forgiving of issues outside the engineer’s control

In short, the visits where utilities engineers felt most secure and comfortable were also ones in which they felt that the customer had a respect for their efforts to provide a good service and supported the engineer to achieve his main tasks.

Our task during this module of the training was to have the utilities engineers highlight the habitual things they could do to achieve an even higher percentage of smooth visits, through decisive, alert, pre-planned and practiced communications during the initial contacts.

RISK AWARENESS in Conflict Management Training for Utilities

The teams described factors which would immediately signal to them what a difficult or uncomfortable customer experience would feel like for them.

  • Customers who had as-yet unresolved bad experiences with the company
  • Work environments which were unhygienic or presented extremely confined spaces
  • Customers who were either over-scrutinising, untrusting or not engaged with the visit at all
  • Customers who responded powerfully to (perhaps) predictable difficulties during the task
  • In a small minority of cases, where customers become overtly aggressive or anti-social

A key focus of our discussions with the utilities engineers was the issue of intuition and its power, effectiveness and ultimate status as the most important risk-management tool at their disposal.  Leveraging the Vistelar methodology again, we discussed a core skill called “Listening with all the senses” and underlining the 6th sense.

Far from being an ethereal concept, intuition is a powerful survival signal and is well established with popular-science writers calling it the “thin-slicing” effect, whereby we understand that experts acting on very little information (the thin slice) are often accurate in their judgements, even when made in the blink of an eye.

One very interesting exercise we went through was to ask the utilities engineers what things they might sense in the first ten seconds of an interaction with the client, perhaps at the front door of their home, which would signal to them that they must terminate the visit immediately.

Well!  We certainly got some interesting stories!   Most though were of the ‘usual’ variety, such as a very angry dog inside the property, barking at the engineer and jumping about.  However some interesting issues arose when we discussed the problem of lone engineers, working in consumers’ homes, when the consumer might not be fully or properly clothed and/or this was intentional.  In one case that we know of in the Utility sector, this became particularly risky for the engineer.

This decisive moment presents an interesting dilemma for the utilities engineers or customer service representative in out experience, where they are ‘caught’ between their normal mode of being polite, respectful and cooperative with their customers, and on the other hand a mode which prioritises their personal safety and requires them to be very direct, maybe even blunt, and barely respectful or uncooperative with their clients in order to make their exit from a situation.  This ability to ‘be rude’ in a situation in order to prioritise one’s safety comes easier to some people than others.

SAFETY DEVICES in Conflict Management Training for Utilities

Companies these days provide numerous tracking, alerting and safety devices to their staff in order to address certain supervision, monitoring and assistance obligations that they have as the employer under health and safety law and regulations.  We have always applauded the provision of these alerting devices and tracking technologies to staff.

It has to be said though, that even the best-designed software using the most up-to-date platforms and hardware still at some point in the process need a human user to:

  1. know how to set up their own personal device
  2. attend to the fact that it is set up properly and working
  3. test the system so that they have confidence it works
  4. know when it is appropriate to activate the device’s alert operationally
  5. have confidence in what happens when they activate the device

In our experience at Dynamis, we have yet to meet a team of people who can meet these criteria fully and with confidence.  Many teams have patchy compliance with installing the ‘safety app’ on their phones.  Even more teams find that they have little confidence in the service or system because they have had a few unintentional activations – the ‘cry wolf’ syndrome.

These devices are SO important though.  Being able to summon help, to alert others to your need for assistance in any kind of crisis is imperative. In our sessions we specifically have the teams practice a number of drill evolutions where the alerting device is central to successful performance.

Vistelar master-trainer Gary Klugiewicz is again bulls-eye accurate with his insistence that we must:

“Practice Fire-Drills, not Fire-Talks”

Hope is not a strategy and when it comes to a critical moment where your last conscious act might be to summon help, we firmly believe that it is important for the teams to know that the alert device is set-up correctly, working as-expected and has a predictable response once activated in an emergency.

MANAGING DIFFICULT MOMENTS in Conflict Management Training for Utilities

Every now and then, predictably, a utilities engineers visit would take an unexpected turn, for example:

  • technical hitch delays the visit and upsets the customers’ schedule
  • creates an unforeseen change in the customer’s circumstances (loss of an appliance)
  • uncovers a need for significant investment by the customer (i.e. a gas leak)
  • triggers unexpected emotionally disturbed behaviour from the customer

In these circumstances, the engineer would be thrust, according to our paradigm, into one of two main modes.   Either the engineer would need to engage in a careful process of listening to draw out the customer’s issues and allow them to present them through a haze of anger, frustration, anxiety and fear, or, the engineer would need to engage a persuasive process, during which they gently corral the customer into making a key decision about whether to proceed with one or other options before them.

We were impressed by the experienced utilities engineers who employed long-refined and perfected approaches to these scenarios.  Interestingly, these engineers are tracked using customer surveys for satisfaction and this simple act of individualisation, coupled with oversight on behalf of the organisation, quite clearly influenced behaviour.   These engineers were as focussed on the customer being happy with the service they received, as they were that the customer received the service they asked for.   There is a subtle difference!  Perhaps the best way to describe this is that, they way people are treated during an encounter with an organisation has more to do with their satisfaction scores than any technical competence the organisation displays. 

For example, the perception of care a hospital gives its patients actually correlates better with patient satisfaction than whether or not people are being cured of their illnesses at that hospital!

For this reason again our Vistelar programming has at its core a focus on the procedural elements of the encounter.   People who feel that they are being ‘properly dealt with’ find themselves with better perceptions of an organisation’s customer service, even if the company did have to switch off their gas, water or electricity!  In this case it is so important that staff have a framework for both conceptualising the conflict that is happening and also have some habitual, pre-planned and practiced responses which they are confident with, so that this ‘procedural justice’ effect can happen.

Our team really enjoyed getting into the whole topic of personal safety, conflict management and risk assessment with these utilities teams.  We are standing by to help similar organisations and teams who may be facing the same issues by delivering a fully customised programme of Conflict Management Training for Utilities Engineers, Customer Service Operatives, Risk Managers and L&D professionals.

Personal Safety for Utilities Gas Electricity Engineers

BOOK RECOMMENDATION:  Lone Working Personal Safety: A Guidebook for Health & Social Care Workers

Team Dynamis Ltd. is the UK representative for Vistelar Conflict Management Training since 2014.

To learn how your organisation can benefit from this modern, evidence-based approach to learning how to professionally manage conflict, please visit: www.dynamis.training/vistelar to learn more.

Train-the-Trainer opportunities may be coming up in the near future which would allow you and your organisation to bring these leading Conflict Management, Crisis Intervention and Personal Safety concepts and practices into your organisation.

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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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