“What can I do to help?” This question is the one often asked by professional educator, Joani Altshuler. When? When she walks into a meeting with a parent, after first being warned that “the parents are irate!” (Ms. Altshuler works in a very challenging school situation, which is not the topic of this article. In her role, she is often in the position of dealing with parents who may or may not have a legitimate reason to be angry).
According to Altshuler, “Most of the parents expect to meet someone who is primed to defend themselves. The reason they expect this is because that is what they have always experienced. Instead, in a very friendly, compassionate, but extremely calm measure, I simply ask, ‘What can I do to help?’ In other words, how can we all work together to make this situation right for everyone; most importantly, their child.”
Ms. Altshuler’s method is very similar to a very well known negotiation tactic in which, when dealing with a difficult person, the expert negotiator might ask, “Mr. Thomas, what is it you’d like to have result from our discussion?” The coolness and calmness of the negotiator both diffuses the other person, and lets them know two more things; one, that they (the negotiator) won’t be rattled by a person acting nasty and/or emotionally and, two, that mutual satisfaction can in fact be attained.
Hostage negotiators will also use this tactic. They’ll come right out, whether by bullhorn or telephone, and ask the hostage-taker, “What is it you’d like to have happen?” or “What is it you want to accomplish through this?”
When in the act of positive persuasion, or “Winning Without Intimidation, always keep your cool, present a calm, self-controlled front, and simply ask the other person, “What can I do to help?” Typically, they will be happy to give you the answer, and the conversation will tend to take a much more mutually beneficial direction.
Is there anything else along these lines you’ve found to be helpful in similar situations?
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It is a beautiful trait to be able to keep your cool against ‘irate’ people.
I was in the front lines of customer service for 20 years and dealt with my share of people that were extremely angry over particular things.
I think I managed to surprise every single one of them because I was not going to let them leave mad. Obviously they were expecting someone to come out defending the company and to tell them they were wrong, but that is never the case. We all have to abide by some rules, at the same time giving that customer the sense that we can solve the issue. I think 8 out of 10 times the person just wanted to be understood, and they figured that they wouldn’t be.
It is powerful to make them first see that you do truly understand why they feel that way, then think outside the box to solve their problems, or at least make them feel that you truly are trying.
I have learned over the years that this is a very powerful phrase as it pertains to customer service as well. It lets them know you are on their side! Great stuff!
Thank you, Tom. I wholeheartedly agree with you!
What a wonderful question! It actually matches almost any human’s desire to “be heard and acknowledged for who they are in the moment” in probably all situations. It disarms the person if s/he was prepared to be defensive. I can see how I can use it with Teenagers and parents coaching. Thanks, Bob!
My pleasure, Mazen. And, knowing Joani as I do, I can even picture her saying it with a very kind, sweet, and genuinely-caring demeanor.
Whether a new thought or a reminder to dust off a favorite tool, this is a great question. Aside from being effective, it’s a great reminder of why we do what we do….. whatever that is! Thanks.
Andrea, thank you. I appreciate your feedback!
I use it in my work (Tech Support) a LOT! And I always end with, “Please call me right away if there’s anything else I you need.”
Nancy, I LOVE it. That’s awesome!!
Jeff, great wisdom you have shared, my friend. Thank you. Everything you said was right on the mark. Beautiful!!
Great post…the only other thing I like to do is repeat what the person is requesting, in my words, and be sure I understand it competely. This way I am sure we are both working towards the same goal. It can get really ugly if you both start working and come to find out at the end there was a misinterpretation. Sometimes what one person says and what he means are perceived differently by people. My husband was raised in the south and I was raised in the north. Often times he asks me a question and I say “I know we are both speaking English but I have no idea what you just asked me”. Just my thought 🙂
Thank you, Christie, and very true regarding repeating the request and making sure you are “hearing what they are saying.” :-). And, there is still more to do after that in terms of problem-solving. I think Joani’s point is that before any of that can take place, by first and immediately asking the question she asks (with the correct attitude),it sets the premise, or “frames” the situation in a very positive and cooperation-based light, as opposed to the antagonistic one that was previously being worked from. Doth that make sense?
And ironically it is often a question we are least prepared to answer to truly it catches us off guard and defuses tension masterfully!
Love the framing of that question, Bob. Dealing with over 600 members, we will have these situations arise from time to time and what they are most wanting, I have found, is to feel listened to and valued. “What can I do to help” immediately diffuses the situation and lets them know that you are giving them your full attention and empathy. Great piece!
Sandy, I think you really nailed it. What most want are to feel listened to and valued; to receive your full attention and empathy. Difficult for anyone to resist that! 🙂
One of the quotes which resonated with me from “The Big Event” was stated by Carrie Wilkerson.
“I used to think old people were cranky until I learned that cranky people just get old.”
In my experience, the “What Can I Do To Help” approach definitely defuses crankiness …
unfortunately there seems to be quite a few cranky people in this world and “What Can I Do To Help” can take its toll on our willingness to help with those people.
Oddly enough, my wife and I were at school just yesterday meeting with our middle childs team of teachers.
This approach can and should be used by parents as well as teachers. Not only does it keep the discussion level headed, but it produces results that are beneficial for the child. As a result, the teachers, my wife, and myself left feeling great with our accomplishment.
Yes, I absolutely agree with that.
Melissa, that’s a great point!
Teri, that WAS a great quote from Carrie, wasn’t it? One of many she provided us during her excellent presentation. Regarding the crankiness in others taking it’s toll on us, that’s a very valid point and I think it’s one reason why we need to continue to be consciously aware of our “own” frames, states and moods as well as theirs. Thank you!
Recently I asked the person who is responsible for managing the front lines of our corporate travel management firm (Atlas Travel) how our agents are trained to respond to irate corporate travelers. She said our standard response is “I am so sorry this is happening to you, what can I do to help?” She claims it diffuses the situation 99% of the time.
Kerin, that’s awesome!! Thank you for sharing that!
Very powerful question, it quickly opens the door to the receiver feeling validated. So many of our conflicts in every aspect of our lives could be resolved when we truly understand and can be empathic to what they are feeling. People like people who listen to them.
How awesome, Joe. And, you’re right; it works (and should go) both ways! Good for you and Rene!
Bob, another awesome commentary as usual. I would like to add a comment that I have used to great effect in the past is “You may hear some things that are difficult to hear but you will really help so and so by listening before responding.” As a former counselor for at risk students this simple phrase used to frame the conversation was helpful in producing results beyond expectations.!
Thank you for sharing, Leslie!
Trough Self development /we better understand self – and we also get to understand other people as well.
By staying calm, confident under any circumstance we can ask any question we want. I believe it’s got to do with our own attitude more that anything.
Words are noise -I use my own behavior to guide ppl. therefore by guiding my own attitude towards other people I can guide their attitude towards me.
People mirror what we do. I call it “Soft Power”.
Staying calm/confident/relaxed/peaceful – it empowers me / and I mirror empowerment to them.
My clients learn more from my behavior than from my techniques.
We can set the tone for any conversation with our own attitude. 🙂
Great post Bob, as always.
Gary, very true. Terrific points all around!
Lorena, yes, our own attitude sets the foundation for the entire transaction, doesn’t it?
I’m so grateful to all of you for sharing your thoughts, experiences and wisdom with us. Thank you very, very much!!