What's In A Response?
Of all the interventions that the Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training program advocates, one of my favorites is "give a rational response." It's the intervention recommended in the Verbal Escalation ContinuumSM for how to respond to an information-seeking question. I like it because it's a principle-based, commonsense strategy that's not only part of a holistic approach, it's also the underlying theme for every single intervention that CPI promotes. It works well when given a chance.
However, whenever I ask a group of participants what they think should be a response for an information-seeking question, I often hear, "Answer the question." Seems to make sense, but the problem with this approach is that human service professionals often answer questions in irrational ways. "When can you go home? When we are darn good and ready to let you go home, that's when!" In this case, the question is answered more or less, but in an irrational way that could lead to escalation of behavior. Something else that needs to be considered is that the employee being asked may not know the answer. You can still give a rational response by being honest and informing the person asking the question that you don't know the answer . . . but you can help them find it.
Checking in to a hotel in D.C. a few years ago had me asking a lot of information-seeking questions at the front desk. I expected some level of satisfaction, as the young man behind the desk looked (deceivingly!) fairly competent. "Can you tell me where I can find the closest bus stop? I don't have a car." Without even looking up from his computer, he responded that he didn't know. Okaaaay . . . not real helpful, but I decided to test the waters again anyway. "I really like ethnic food. Do you know if there are any Thai restaurants in the area?" He looked up at me like I was wasting his time and told me that there was a fast-food restaurant just down the street. Strike two! Being a glutton for punishment, I decided to try one final time. "I see that you have a computer in the lobby. Can I get complimentary access to the Internet on that computer?" He looked up and down the lobby and in a surprised tone exclaimed, "We have a computer?!" Hopefully not the best employee and certainly not the brightest. Giving me a bus schedule, providing me with the yellow pages, or calling his manager would have been great ways to give rational responses.
Here's the bottom line. Patients, students, clients, and others will not take offense if you don't know the answer to their questions. What they will not accept is if that's where you stop. "I don't know, but I'll find out," or " Here's a way that you can find out" are acceptable answers that are consistent with rational responses. So let's go the extra mile to keep people from escalating any further.