Sometimes a park visitor is irritated about something. They direct it at you. They say something in a harsh tone and an awkward response is made. No one intends it, but the dialogue is becoming a confrontation. One simple question can redirect a possible confrontation back to a conversation.

The question is, “What would you like me to do?”

A Park once requested I work on a design for their Park Store. After spending several days in the Park I returned to the Park Store for a wrap-up meeting. While in the parking lot I noticed a very large Cadillac sedan. In the Cadillac was an elderly couple; their license plate showed they were from several states to the east of their current location. Their car doors opened. The wife commented, “This place looks nice. Let’s see if we can get something for Megan.” He loudly commented about finding a restroom.

I arrived in the Park Store for my meeting a few minutes early so I browsed the store’s items. A minute later the elderly couple entered the building. The woman saw something on a store shelf and walked over to look. The man quickly walked up to the checkout desk and bluntly asked, “Where’s the can around here?”

A very young seasonal worker was behind the desk. She was nice enough but spoke as though she was reading from a script, “Hello. The Day Use fee is $5.00.”

His tone was gruff, ” I can always tell when I drive into this state – my wallet gets lighter.”

The worker politely smiled. “It’s five dollars to visit the park, sir.”

He appeared to be physically uncomfortable. “We’re not visiting the park!” snapped the man.

The worker looked surprised, “Visiting or not sir, everyone needs to pay the day use fee.”

The man shook his head, “Five bucks, for a ten minute stop?”

The worker dug in her heels. “Sorry, sir. Those are the rules.”

“Rules!” blurted the man, “Every time I visit this G%&-D#*n state I am always being nickel-and-dimed for something.”

The young worker appeared uncertain of what to say next. People in the Visitors Center were becoming uncomfortable by the language. The man huffed under his breath, “Fine! I’ll pay the fee – just tell me where the restrooms are.” The girl pointed to a side door. He quickly disappeared out of the building. The worker mumbled, “If you’re going to be that way, we don’t want you here anyway!” The wife must have heard this because at that moment she quietly put down an item she had in her hand and left the store. Neither the elderly man nor woman returned. They would probably think very differently about parks from that day forward.

This was a sad and unnecessary escalation that could have been avoided. Obviously better training for the worker; improved visitor signage with larger text; or even an identified 15-minute parking area would have helped. But at any point during the escalating conversation, the worker could have sincerely looked at the man and asked, “What would you like me to do?”

The question is powerful and direct. It does two things: Firstly, it identifies that you can act, or are at least prepared to act and; secondly, it requires irritated visitors to state what they want/need to resolve the issue.

If the elderly man had been asked, “What would you like me to do?” he may have responded with, “I need a bathroom and my wife is looking for a gift for our grand-daughter. I don’t want to pay $5.00 because we will be here less than 10 minutes.” The worker could have replied, “OK. The restroom is around the corner. If you decide to spend more time in the park can I get your assurance you’ll pay for day use?”

Most people are not irrational; they can be irritable because they are uncomfortable or stressed about something besides you. This elderly man was loud and obnoxious, but these personality issues were probably exacerbated because he was very tired from a long drive and needed a restroom. The worker became a target for his frustrations. When the occasional visitor is irritable and not communicating effectively, ask:

What do you want me to do?

This question can move the dialogue from a possible confrontation back to a conversation.

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