How Could You Say Something Like That?!

Posted on January 31, 2013

When Questions Attack, Can You Avoid Striking Back?
by Amy Yeager & Ben Benjamin

angry question“What were you thinking?”

“Are you out of your mind?”

“Is this really the best you can do?”

If someone asked you a question like that, how would you respond? For many of us, these types of questions—called righteous questions—are very difficult to deal with. We get angry or defensive, or we just shut down. In a training we led recently, we asked healthcare providers to think about the most challenging questions they heard from their colleagues and patients, and each question they gave us fell into the righteous category. (For instance, “Where is my medication?! What is taking the pharmacy so long?!”)

A quick way to tell whether a question is righteous is to apply the “You jerk” test. Try mentally adding a phrase like “You jerk” or “You idiot” or a similar insult at the end, and see if it fits. For instance, “What were you thinking, you idiot?” or “How could you do that, you jerk?”

This type of communication can throw us off balance, because it’s phrased like a question, but is actually a personal attack. It’s not really asking for information, at least not directly. For this reason, trying to give a straightforward answer usually isn’t helpful. Consider this customer service conversation:

Angry customer: “What the h*** is this charge on my bill?”
Calm service rep: “That is the daily network usage fee.”
Still angry customer: “So you add in this random fee, and I’m supposed to just pay it?”
Still calm service rep: “If you consult your user agreement, sir, you’ll see that it lists this fee as part of your monthly bill.”
Even angrier customer: “Oh, so that’s your strategy? You bury your fees in fine print and hope nobody notices?”
Calm-as-ever service rep: “No, it’s not buried, sir. It’s listed in the contract with all your other charges.”
No longer a customer: “This is ridiculous! I’m taking my business elsewhere!”

If the customer had been asking neutral questions—“Could you tell me what this charge is?” “Is that included in my contract somewhere?”—the representative’s answers would have been entirely appropriate. But in response to righteous questions, they just made the customer more upset.

The secret to responding effectively to a righteous question is to realize that it’s actually an attack, and that the most important part of any attack is not the content; it’s the emotion that’s being expressed—usually anger, frustration, or irritation. When a person communicates in this way, they’re usually too upset to have a calm, rational discussion about the issue at hand (the medication, the usage fee, or whatever you’re talking about). Before they can think clearly, they need to calm down.

How can you help an angry person calm down? You show an understanding of what they’re feeling. That doesn’t mean saying, “I hear that you’re angry” in a calm, quiet voice tone. In fact, anything you say in a calm, quiet tone will probably make the person more upset. (Think of any time you’ve been furious with someone and they’ve tried to calmly reason with you. Did you feel heard and understood? Probably not.)

Instead, what tends to work best is mirroring: reflecting back what you heard, with energy and empathetic feeling in your voice. It’s typically best to match the other person’s voice tone, but with slightly less intensity. For instance, here’s what might happen if that customer service representative tried mirroring:

Angry customer: “What the h*** is this charge on my bill?”
Service rep with a clear, strong, firm tone: “You’re seeing a charge you weren’t expecting, and you want to know what’s going on.”
Slightly calmer customer: “That’s right.”
Service rep: “Okay, let me figure that out, and see what we can do for you…”

Matching the customer’s emotion is likely to lead to a much better outcome than either a calm explanation or a stock phrase rattled off in a monotone (“I’m very sorry to hear you’re having trouble, sir”).

Mirroring is a difficult skill to master, and it isn’t a quick, easy fix. If the other person is extremely angry, or if you’re discussing a long-standing or deeply emotional issue, you may need to mirror quite a few times before they start to feel heard. And mirroring doesn’t eliminate the need to solve the underlying problem that made the person upset. It’s not a miracle cure for an angry conversation. But it is a h*** of a good start.