How to craft a resilient response

NRF PROTECT: Former Secret Service agent Evy Poumpouras on verbal conflict resolution

The NRF PROTECT conference and expo was held in Cleveland from June 21-23, 2022. This event explores the tactics and best practices for loss prevention in the retail industry. Learn more about the conference here.

The opening keynote of NRF PROTECT was delivered on Wednesday morning by Evy Poumpouras, a former Secret Service agent who has worked for former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. Poumpouras began her career as a member of the New York Police Department, from which she was recruited by the Secret Service.

After leaving government service in 2012, Poumpouras completed her bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees, one in forensic psychology and one in journalism. In addition to her consultative and journalistic activities, she serves as an adjunct professor of journalism at City University of New York, where she teaches criminal justice.

In other words, Evy Poumpouras is something of a tough cookie, and it’s likely that some of her audience came in expecting a collection of war stories. What they got instead was a clear, well-documented discussion of verbal conflict resolution.

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“When NRF reached out to me,” Poumpouras said, “I asked what they were looking for in a keynote speech, and they asked for two things. One was resiliency — how do you deal with difficult situations? The other was conflict management — there’s a sense that something different is going on.”

One thing that’s going on, she noted, is that people are under a lot of stress — from the economy, the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and a long list of other factors. That stress, she observed, is manifesting itself in people’s behavior, including a general and growing inability to socialize. Some do well with it and some do not, which creates a need for the ability to deal with people in difficult situations.

The person doing the dealing — a store detective, say, or a customer service representative — needs to clearly understand their own role in finding a solution to whatever problem has arisen.

“Some people shine in a moment of stress,” Poumpouras said. “Put them into a difficult situation, they can adapt, pivot and deal with it. But the majority of folks struggle, and that’s what I want to talk to you about.”

She began with a discussion of brand: How do you present yourself? When a stranger walks up to you (or vice versa), what do they see? What they need, in many cases, is a leader — someone who can understand a difficulty or a conflict and lead the way out of it.

The top two qualities enabling resolution capability — the “human brand” that identifies such a leader — are warmth and competency.

Exercising these qualities is a matter not only of having them, she said, but of understanding when and how they are needed. Often an agitated person is not immediately interested in solving whatever the problem is. “They are emotionally attached to the problem, and they don’t want a solution. Their goal is not to fix whatever’s wrong,” she said.

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“Their goal is to be heard. Sometimes you have to have the conversation they want before you can have the conversation you want. It is worth the 15 or 20 minutes it will take to let them vent, because now they’re ready to listen to you.”

And when they’re venting, she said, are you leading? Providing solutions? No, you’re listening. A large component of what Poumpouras was presenting is the ability to understand what aspect of their personality the other person is exhibiting, and shift to an aspect of your own personality that either counteracts or harmonizes with the particular place they’re coming from.

It’s not an easy thing to do, she acknowledged. “Know your brand,” she said in closing. “Focus on warmth and competence. Understand when a person — including you — is stuck on a thought and won’t let go of it. Be OK with having their conversation before you have yours. Remember that what you’re seeing isn’t all of them: Respond to the behavior, not the person. And put ego aside.”

Other than that, it’s a snap.

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