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Reacting to an Offending Comment

Using a Tool from Aviation

---by Gene Benson

Much of my work as the primary author of the Being Better program has come from my work in aviation safety. Much has been written lately about our emotional intelligence and our reaction to offending comments or statements from others. We have been addressing this in aviation for years, but with a different twist.

The emotional intelligence angle addresses our response to an insult or other offending comment. The danger lies in reacting based on our raw emotion in a way that shows us in a bad light, causes us to lose the respect or confidence of our colleagues, or damages relationships beyond repair. In aviation, we deal with our response to a startling event such as a sudden-onset inflight emergency. The danger there lies reacting in an incorrect way which can exacerbate the situation or perhaps lead to an accident. I believe that the two situations are closely related in both psychology and physiology. It then seems logical that an appropriate response can be derived by using some of the same tools for managing our response to an offending comment that we use to manage our response to a sudden onset emergency while inflight.


Whether dealing with an offending comment or an inflight emergency, our actions during the first few seconds are critical. Inaction is far superior to bad action. Time is a great insulator, working to prevent an inappropriate reaction or an incorrect response. A pause of just a few seconds duration can move our decision from being a raw, ill-considered response to being a thoughtful and effective action. If a pilot immediately responds to an engine fire by shutting down the wrong engine, a bad situation just became terrible situation. If a person immediately snaps a retaliatory insult to a co-worker in response to a misunderstood comment, a very bad outcome is likely. Very few situations are so critical that a pause of a few seconds results in catastrophe.


One technique we can borrow and adapt from aviation is the “3-P Model.” It tells us to first perceive, then process our perception to form an effective response, then perform corrective action. We can repeat as necessary.


So, when we perceive an offending comment, we should take a few seconds to process it. Did we hear it correctly? Did it come from the person we first identified as the source? Was it intended with malice or was it a poor choice of words? What is my previous experience with this person? How valuable is my relationship with this person? Should I respond or ignore the comment? Is there a way to effectively respond and remain respectful?


Then we perform our recently formulated response, whether it be to ignore, seek clarification, to challenge, or whatever (hopefully) non-violent action it may be. Then, depending on the feedback we received, we can repeat our “3-Ps” as needed.

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