3 steps for responding to emotionally charged questions

Simple, cold facts won’t cut it when you’re dealing with people who’ve suffered a great loss—nor will platitudes. Connect first, and then learn more so you can make a difference.

Let’s say you represent a government agency and have been scheduled to speak at a local community meeting.

A natural disaster occurred in that town—a major flood, perhaps—and local residents are furious at what they see as your agency’s inaction to help them rebuild.

In such a heated environment—one in which people have suffered the loss of life, work or property—you can expect to be asked emotionally charged questions.

Your response must align with the audience’s emotional concerns. Responding to emotionally heavy questions with facts alone isn’t enough. People want to know—and feel—that you “get it.”

The A-A-a Formula

When you’re asked an emotional question, remember the A-A-a Formula: Acknowledge, Answer, and advocate. (The “a” in the final step is in lower case, because you’ll use it only occasionally.)

The first step in demonstrating that you get it is to acknowledge the audience member’s concerns before rushing into an answer.

That means you should never lead into an answer with a well‐meaning but potentially inflammatory platitude: “I completely understand your concerns.”

Such a response can lead to a snappy retort: “How could you possibly understand? This is your first time visiting our community, and you’re not the one who lost his home!”

Instead, a simple and sincere acknowledgement is usually sufficient:

  • “Thank you for sharing your experience.”
  • “I’m sorry to hear that happened to you.”
  • “I’m upset to learn that you had such difficulty reaching one of our representatives. That shouldn’t have happened to you.”

You might also follow up with a diagnostic question: “When you spoke with the representative from our agency, what did you learn about our timeline for examining your property?”

Alternatively, you can try to identify any unstated concerns or emotions behind the original question: “I know you said that our process is confusing. What do you think we can do to make the process easier for people?”

Simply asking a relevant follow‐up question can make the audience member feel heard and often softens their tone—plus, their reply gives you the information you need to form a more precise response. Even if you don’t win over that audience member, the audience will appreciate the respect you bestowed upon the upset attendee.

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The second step is to answer the question. (See examples below.) The final step, which you won’t use in every case, is to advocate for a follow-up by informing the audience where they can learn more information or how they can get involved.

Example No. 1:

A cknowledge: “I’m sorry to hear how tough the past two months have been for you and your family. I know this isn’t enough to address your concern immediately, but I do want you to know that we are listening to local residents’ complaints.”

A nswer: “That is why I ordered my department to hire three new inspectors. They started last week, and, as a result, we’ve doubled the number of home inspections we can perform on any given day. Our response times have improved significantly—not enough to get to everyone immediately, but enough to make a difference.”

a dvocate: “We know we still have work to do. I’m committed to doing whatever is in our power, and so is my team. If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to consider joining our Citizens Panel. It’s important for us to hear from informed citizens like you, and we’re committed to learning how we can improve our services.”

Example No. 2:

A cknowledge: “Thank you for sharing your story with me. It sounds like our usual procedure wasn’t followed in your case, which concerns me.”

A nswer: “Typically in these cases, we have an inspector out to a property within 15 days and a follow‐up inspection by an engineer, if necessary, within 30 days. We succeed at that most of the time, but as your case illustrates, not always.”

a dvocate: “I’d like to speak with you afterward to learn more about your case to see whether there’s any follow-up I can do on your behalf. If there is, I’d be happy to help.”

Brad Phillips is the president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog and two books: The Media Training Bible and 101 Ways to Open a Speech. A version of this article first appeared on the Mr. Media Training blog.

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