The first tool is a Generic Categories Guideline.  How often have you had to prepare for any challenging meeting, either internal or external, and develop a list of difficult questions with possible answers?   These potential questions can be grouped into generic categories.


Each category had its own unique generic nature of response as well as traps to avoid. This is an effective tool to supplement other preparations for difficult/challenging questions and statements.  The categories:



  1. Ventilation – A Highly Negative Emotional State such as anger, disgust and irritation
  2. What’s the Question or Statement?
  3. Rude But Briefly Acceptable
  4. Negative Allegations – Not True
  5. Negative Allegations – True
  6. 6.    Guarantee/100% Assurance/No Risk Acceptable
  7. Fairness Questions
  8. The Setup Question or Statement
  9. Personal Interest That’s Not Relevant (in group discussions)
  10. Policy
  11. Factual Questions – Who? What? When? Where?
  12. Fear


Below is one example, known as “Guarantee/100% Assurance.







¶  Guarantee/100% Assurance

¶  No Risk Acceptable¶  “Promise me this will never happen again.”

¶  “Can you guarantee me that…?”

¶  “Why can’t you go to zero?”¶  Initially, saying yes, no or maybe

¶  Not recognizing the “numerator perception” e.g., saying initially, “There are no guarantees. “ or “We can’t guarantee you that.”¶  Emphasize your commitment and what you are doing

¶  What you can guarantee

¶  Moving towards zero

¶  We are making progress on…



The second tool is a 4-Step Guideline. It is a flexible guideline, not a model that you always use in a 4-step linear manner.

Step 1 – Empathy

Sometimes it is appropriate to indicate to your stakeholders that you have some sense of what they are saying and/or some sense of their situation.  Empathy is not sympathy and empathy is not agreement.  Empathy is not “I know how you feel” because you don’t know how they feel.


Empathy is your ability to figure out the following:  What must their situation be like for them?  To do this, you must “remove yourself” and think about them instead of yourself.  Removing yourself means you cannot bring in your personal feelings, beliefs or feelings.  Empathy can not be artificial.  It must be genuine.    You cannot “pretend” to be empathic to their situation because stakeholders can tell if you are sincere by your nonverbals, e.g., voice tone, body language.


Empathetic statements are frequently not necessary.  They are most helpful when dealing with anger, fear, irritation, disgust and in any crisis situation.  Empathy statements if used should usually be stated before Step 2: Conclusion, Step 3: Facts, and Step 4: Future Action.


Personal connections can be made in an empathy statement only if the connection is direct and solid.  Examples of effective direct empathy statements would be, “I live in your neighborhood, too.” or “My family also drinks that water.” or “I’ve taken the vaccine.”  Or “I went out there and saw that.”  Conversely, what won’t work are statements like: “I work next to your community.” or “I would drink that water if I lived here.” or “I would take that vaccine.”  would most likely not be effective empathy statements.


Major traps in empathy statements are:

-        Using personal connections that are not relevant to the listener

-        Giving statements that are not genuine – both in the words and the voice tone.


Step 2 – Conclusion

The conclusion is usually the most difficult step in the 4-Step Structured Response Guideline.  It must be short, simple and precede the facts that support the conclusion.  Many of us tell facts then the conclusion.  When we were children, we heard stories with the conclusion at the end, after the facts.  Also, the facts precede conclusion in a financial statement (the bottom line).  A baseball score, after the nine innings of facts.  We like to tell our friends something that we observed or that happened to us.  Usually we save the conclusion for the end.  That’s okay.  It’s not okay in Risk Communication.  In Risk Communication you must get to the point up front, then see what the reaction is.  The conclusion should address the underlying point of the question or statement.


Examples of good conclusion statements are:

-        “The water is safe to drink.”

-        “The vaccine is safe and effective.”

-        “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”

-        “We’ve been sharing all the information with you.”

-        “We are doing a lot.”

-        “We don’t plan further clean up.”

-        “We could have done better back then.”

-        “The food is safe to eat.”

-        “The policy states that…”

-        “We can not provide that to you.”

-        “We can provide that to you.”

-        “I have bad news to deliver.”

-        “You are okay.”

-        “You do have cancer.”

-        “One thing that has to happen first is…”

-        “The clean up is complete.”

-        “We don’t plan to spend any more money.”


Also, if you are concerned that they may not be listening close enough to your conclusion, you can use opening phrases such as:

-        “Our conclusion is…”

-        “The answer to your question is…”

-        “What we learned was…”

-        “The good news is…”

-        “The unfortunate news is…”

-        “I’m sorry to say…”


Major traps in the conclusion step are:

-        The conclusion statement doesn’t address the underlying concern, question from the stakeholder.

-        The conclusion statement is too long

-        Facts are included in the conclusion, e.g., “The water is safe to drink because…”  The facts are delivered separately in Step 3.  First make sure they heard the conclusion.


Step 3 – Facts

Facts support your conclusion.  Usually one, two or three facts are sufficient.  There is no right number of facts to support your conclusion.  In some instances, you may only have one fact.  Other times, you may have several facts and your stakeholders are interested in all of them.  That is, they are actively listening.  In those instances, use all your facts.  It is crucial that you use your nonverbal skills here.  As you are speaking, determine whether your stakeholders are listening to you.  If not, stop talking about your facts and find out why they aren’t listening.  You can use transition statements between your conclusion and facts, e.g.:

-        “The reason I say that is…”

-        “Why, because we have developed…”

-        “The reason for that is…”


Major traps in the fact step are:

-        Over use of negative words and phrases

-        The use of what would be considered jargon for the stakeholders

-        Not observing if the stakeholders are listening


Step 4 – Future Action

You may not always have or need a future action in your verbal response.  There are many instances where you close/complete the response without a future action.  Many times the conclusion is all you need, e.g., “We can’t change policy.”  However, it is usually important to have a future action when the stakeholders are concerned, fearful, distrustful, worried, confused or misperceiving the facts.


Future action statements should have a “when” or timing factor.   If you don’t have a “when,” then provide them a “when” you’ll have a “when”.  “I’ll call you next Friday, I may have a schedule then.”  Whatever your future action comment is, it should let the stakeholders know that they will continue to be involved, unless, of course, their point/issue has been resolved.


Good future action statements are:

-        “I don’t know, but I’ll call you tomorrow.”

-        “I don’t know, but I’ll let you know at the meeting next Tuesday.”

-        “I’ll be happy to talk to you more after the meeting.”

-        “There’s more information about this on our website/brochure/fact sheet.”

-        “The next review will be held at ‘X’ on ‘Y’ day.”

-        “We won’t know for at least 6 months, but I’ll be glad to call/email once a month on our latest outlook.”


Major traps in the future action step are:

-        Not mention a “when” or “when” you’ll have a “when.”


Caveats to the 4-Step Guideline:

-        Again, it is a guideline, not a model

-        You may not have conclusion/facts just a future action.  If so, the future action is also your conclusion.

-        Use transition statements between steps, e.g., “The reason the water is safe to drink (conclusion) is (facts),” or, “I went out there and saw that (empathy) and what I learned was (conclusion).  So here is what we think should be done (facts).”

-        This guideline is not for media communications; how one communicates with the media is different.  See Chapter 8.

-        None of this is effective without good nonverbal skills, self awareness and observation skills.



  1. Mr WordPress 01/14/2013, 10:45 pm Reply

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