He Said; She Said — The Secret to Ending the Blame Game


Welcome to TalkRx with Doctor Neha. I’m filming from Bali. Today’s episode is about giving feedback and that ping-pong game of blame that can sometimes happen when you let someone know of an issue that could be improved.

Right before I came to Bali, I was a retreat center where several monks were also there meditating and having a retreat. I was waiting in line at the front desk when one monk walked up to the front desk. (It sounds like I’m telling a joke, but I promise I’m not.)

The monk said to the clerk, “Hello, I just wanted to inform you that I’ve just fallen on the path. It’s a bit dark out there, and there are a lot of stones. So I’m wondering if I could give some feedback that your retreat center might consider adding some more lighting to the pathway that we walk since it’s an incline.” I thought it sounded like a pretty simple request, and I agreed with the monk that it was rough terrain to be walking on in the dark. But the response from the person behind the desk was, “Well, did you bring a flashlight with you like we told you to do on the website?”

The monk paused for a minute and said, “No, I didn’t bring a flashlight.”

The person behind the desk said, “Then do you have a smartphone? Because you should really use a smartphone. They have lights on them and that will give you the light that you need.” The monk looked down, opened her arms and said, “I don’t use smartphones.”

The person behind the desk kept going: “Well, surely you can walk with somebody else so that you can hold each other while you’re walking on the path…”

As this exchange was happening in front of me, I practiced breathing slowly and deeply and thinking to myself how this is a classic example of the ping pong game of blame. If you have ever been in that game, you know what I’m talking about.

If I were the front desk clerk, the first question I would have asked would have been, “Are you okay? You’re on our property, and you just told me you fell. Are you okay? Do you need anything?” But that response might be the doctor in me.

Obviously, what happened is something very different, some sort of defensiveness or worry about risk or liability. The person behind the desk was trying to make sure that the monk had been told on the website that she needed to bring a flashlight, the ground was rough, etc. This type of back-and-forth arguing doesn’t get you very far.

How might a situation like this be turned around? If you find yourself in this type of scenario, you can change it. The first thing to do is listen for the emotions of the person who’s talking to you rather than thinking of how to defend yourself (or your employer). You might say, “Wow, I’m so sorry! You must have been shocked and surprised when you fell. Are you okay?” Then you go another level deeper, with something like this: “Thank you for bringing this to our attention.” You appreciate the person for having the courage to bring up something like this.

Then listen for what is important to that person. You might say, “I know how important health is, and for the health of our clients, we will certainly offer that suggestion at the next meeting to see what we can do about it.” After that, you could follow up with a suggestion: “Are you interested in some ways to improve this during your stay here because I doubt there will be more light by the weekend or the end of your stay. I have some thoughts about how you might navigate walking safely as it gets dark. There’s a flashlight on a phone. Do you have a smartphone? Maybe we can find a way to get you a flashlight. Or could you consider walking with someone else?” But those ideas come later. It doesn’t matter if they are good ideas or feedback, but it matters that you don’t use them to lead a conversation. Otherwise, it comes across as defensive.

If you are in a customer service profession, this is paramount. When somebody brings a complaint or a concern to you, make sure that your first concern is about the person talking to you. Be good to people. Once you’ve connected to their emotions and what’s important to them, your second concern can be about some logistics and tactics around how to improve that issue in the future.

If you ever find yourself in a game of blame, it doesn’t take much time to solve. It actually takes less time if you listen and show concern for the other person—and the end result is the two of you feel more connected. Thanks for watching this episode of TalkRx with Doctor Neha. If you would like to ask a question that I can use on the vlog, please drop me a tweet at #AskDoctorNeha.

Awareness Prescription

Receiving Feedback

  1. Listen deeply for the emotion beneath the person’s words.

  2. Listen deeply for their values related to the issue at hand.

  3. Ask if they would like to hear your ideas/suggestions.

For more information on the Five Levels of Listening, read chapter 10 in TalkRx.

Game over,


4 Responses

  1. Great guidance for people in customer service or anyone presented with a complaint. What would you advise the monk (customer) to do differently when faced with this type of situation? Thanks.

    1. Great question Phil. First, recognize that the person behind the desk is deflecting blame onto the customer. This isn’t likely the right level of management / leadership to be speaking with. I would speak with a manager or post it online as feedback so others know. Sometimes people say they’re open to feedback, but what they really mean is – tell us what we did right. Most importantly, recognize when your efforts aren’t working..!

      1. Thank you! That sounds like the right approach. I really enjoy your videos and am learning a lot about communication.

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