Don't get caught up in other people's emotions. Customers and coworkers will often times act as if they are in the midst of an emergency when they are not. Or they will act childish or rude. Or they will act as if you are the only one who can help them. This is almost never an accurate depiction of their situation. They might be trying to manipulate you into giving them a price break or, worse, they simply have no control over their emotions. Having empathy and sympathy is helpful in understanding and communicating with customers but getting wrapped up in their emotional states means that you stop being in control of your own autonomy and you can unconsciously take on their emotions. If this happens you can find yourself anxious, angry, fearful, hyperactive or otherwise mirroring someone else's emotions unnecessarily.
When you're in an emotional state that inhibits your ability to look at a situation rationally you will not be able to think around the problem and solve it. Many times there might be no immediate solution available and you end up wasting a lot of time attempting to calm someone down or explain something when you really need to move on in a way that is direct and professional. Sometimes it is important to restart the conversation by explaining what is happening in an effort to regain control of your own participation in the interaction. Being honest about what you think they are expecting or what you think you can do for them can help stop the momentum of an interaction in an effort to lead it back on track to finding a resolution.
This reminds me of the leadership principle of detachment from the book "Extreme Ownership" by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The concept of detachment is very important in retail as you represent a company that's goal is to sell products and create loyalty; not to have emotionally driven conversations with people who aren't interested in buying products or who think that it is appropriate to spew their problems onto you because you're obligated to interact with them. If you have self-respect and maintain a professional demeanor you will not allow situations with customers to get heated or derailed too far. If a customer or coworker becomes abusive or disrespectful then it is up to you to hold them accountable and let them know that you do not accept that kind of behavior.
I remember a time when I had to stop a customer from yelling at me and assert myself in order to regain control of the situation. I was working at a movie theater and part-way through a screening the projector malfunctioned and the speakers started making a loud screeching sound, disturbing many of the customers. I was a manager at the time and as I started issuing apologies and raincheck tickets I had an older man start to scream at me about how the sound hurt his ears and how angry he was, which was obvious. I listened for a few moments and then had to respectfully but assertively explain to the customer that I would not be able to do anything for them unless they stopped yelling. I told them that I understood that they were upset but that I would not allow them to continue to berate me. My tone and demeanor must have communicated my seriousness as the man stopped screaming and I was able to issue them compensation.
One of the best things one can do in a situation where others are being excessively emotional is to be calm and to listen. Allowing someone to vent for a moment can be instructive but at a certain point, you must reestablish your authority and explain what you will do next. As an employee of any business, you are in charge of dictating what will and won't, can and can't happen for someone that is having an issue. Sometimes, this means explaining that you are not the best person to help them, which is another reason to not let a conversation linger too long without interrupting. Upset customers become more upset if they find that they stood in the wrong line or ranted and raved to the wrong person. By listening and remaining calm you can get straight to the matter and come up with a solution.
It is also important to explain the process that you are using to solve a problem. If you come up with an idea to solve a problem you should not just enact the solution without letting the customer know. By explaining step by step what you are about to do or what you think will help you allow the customer to join you in the pursuit and show that you are on their side. Leaving them in silence or without knowing what you are doing creates confusion and may lead to them thinking that you have abandoned them. If they think this or think that you are incompetent then they will look somewhere else and usually with more fuel for their anger.
All of this does not mean you should not have fun conversations with customers and coworkers, but even when you are generating rapport you should be able to detach and get a sense of whether you need to complete the sale or if you have time to continue the conversation or if you need to address something else. There might be something going on that requires your assistance. You may be able to simply tell a nearby customer where a product can be found. Taking a few seconds to check out your environment can help you stay detached and make you able to react to new situations.
Stay calm and pay attention. This is not easy and it takes a certain amount of discipline and control to maintain. It requires observing yourself in the moment and recognizing what is happening, both inside yourself and in the environment around you. It also means looking back at your decisions with criticism and objectivity. There are times when I have failed to maintain my composure or made a bad decision and it is in those times that I look back and try to prepare for the future. By accepting failures, owning them and looking to others for guidance I have grown better at dealing with the ups and downs of life, in and out of the retail environment.