Kerry Patterson is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I read Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations and have tried to implement the skills in the books, but I still have a hard time dealing with accusations. The problem is that the first instinct when someone accuses you is to restore safety or use contrasting to solve the misunderstanding, but the accuser does not seem to be affected by those actions. Instead, they continue to draw incorrect conclusions about you or something you did. I’m sure a lot of people experience this same issue. What am I missing here and what is the best way to reply to someone who wrongly accuses you?
Struggling with Accusations
Thank you for raising this important issue. Over the years, we’ve taught a variety of skills in our books and training, but only rarely have we written scripts or shot video examples where the conversation starts with the other person accusing you. Of course, not all accusations are alike. It might feel more like a slight chiding or a gentle reminder. In this rather innocuous case, you can assess the feedback and adjust accordingly.
However, I believe the accusation you have in mind is more akin to a tense, sharply delivered statement that not only accuses you of malfeasance, but feels like an attack. As you fall under a verbal assault—say one that questions your reliability, integrity, or talent—it’s likely you’ll become angry in return. When this happens, your natural response to what feels like a mild physical threat is to move from your “know” to your “go” system and react in a defensive and also stupid way.
If you allow your “go” system to take charge, you will indeed, be less controlled and logical than is optimal for the circumstances and become blinded to most rational thought. In addition, when someone questions your character, it serves as an emotional accelerant. Between the perceived threat to your safety and the apparent attack on your character, you’re now pumping adrenaline, thinking with the most basic part of your brain, and neck deep in a shouting match or worse.
To best respond to an accusation or attack, start by dealing with your own growing anger. Cut it off before the adrenaline slips into your blood stream. Take a deep breath and reinterpret the attack, not as a threat to your safety—unless it actually is, in which case you need to exit—but as a misunderstanding that has caused the other person to become frustrated or maybe even angry with you. This switch helps you turn from being angry—you’ve judged them as bad and wrong and deserving of a good tongue lashing—to becoming curious.
When you become genuinely curious, you reignite your center for logic and reason and turn off your anger response. Now you want to know exactly why the other person drew such a harsh conclusion about you. Instead of an emotional defender, you’re now a relatively calm detective trying to get to the source of the other person’s anger.
The mystery you’re trying to solve is the following: “What exactly did I do that led you to that conclusion?” You’ll have to search for the answer because as soon as others become upset they’re very likely to lead with their conclusions or accusations against your character. It’s now your job to get to the behavior behind the accusation.
You may be tempted to start with a contrasting statement, but you’ll have to be careful not to end up with a correcting statement masked as a contrasting one. For example, “You say I can’t be trusted, but I believe you’re wrong!” (Bad) Or, “I didn’t intend to make you angry. I was just trying to do my job.” (Better, but it still sounds defensive) Instead of starting with a contrasting statement, become a detective. Probe to find out the source of the other person’s anger. For instance, “I’m not sure what I did that led you to conclude I can’t be trusted. Could you tell me exactly where I went wrong?”
Say this with sincerity laced with concern, but remain focused on the science. What were your actual behaviors? By searching for the facts and avoiding the conclusions, it allows the other person to share his or her complete view of the circumstances. This serves two important purposes. The accuser will have time to calm down—the adrenaline doesn’t go away in an instant—and you will learn more about the details of the situation.
In addition, when angry, the other person really wants to make sure he or she has been heard and understood. So, repeat back the details of the description to ensure you have them right. Continue to probe for your action behind the conclusion. Left to their own, many people just move from sharing one conclusion to sharing another. Try something like: “So you think I was selfish? What part of what I did seemed selfish to you?”
As the other person begins to share the details of the precipitating event, avoid the temptation to correct any of their statements of fact until you’ve earned the right to do so. By thoughtfully and carefully listening to his or her ugly and angry conclusions and eventually getting to the underlying facts, you’re now to the point where you can add your views. Take care; this puts you at risk once again. Don’t start with your corrections to his or her facts. Instead, explain how you can see how the other person might have come to his or her conclusion, but you have a different view on the matter. Start by sharing the elements you agree with and then point out how you see certain elements differently. This may be the time when you share your honest intentions: e.g., you weren’t trying to make this person look bad in front of the boss, you were simply trying to lend a hand.
Because you’ve taken care to sort out the facts, thoughtfully listen, allow the anger to subside, and tactfully share your view, you’re finally ready to engage in honest dialogue. But know this process takes time and patience. Left to your own proclivities, you may want to fight back. This will fuel the fires of anger and is likely to confirm the other person’s existing poor conclusions about you. Become a concerned detective, not a defender.
All the best,