Labels vs. Questions When Engaged In Challenging Conversations

View dealing with strong emotions as an information gathering exercise

Recently I introduced Chris Voss’ book “Never Split The Difference” to share some useful negotiation strategies. Today I’m going to delve further into using labels vs. questions.

Labels are a really useful for gathering information.

People think that the best way to gather information is to ask more questions but that may not always be true.

As I was reading his book he talked about labelling strong emotions as a way of gathering useful information rather than asking more questions. Even open questions that you think might be helpful.

I thought that labelling strong emotions would be a really useful technique for clinicians to use when in an uncomfortable situation with either patients or staff.

Recognising Emotions

Patients are bombarded with questions and when there is a particularly strong emotion present, these questions can feel like a trap.

Rapport is the basis for information flow. Consequently, the better two people get along, the more likely they are to open up and share what’s on their mind.

If you ignore a strong emotion and act as if it doesn’t exist then your rapport is broken. The emotion may even escalate as it will be perceived as a lack of interest on your part.

But how do you deal with staff or patients when they exhibit a strong emotions like anger, frustration, hopelessness, sadness, and others? Unfortunately undergraduate training doesn’t really prepare you for difficult conversations when these types of emotions are present.

What Voss suggests as an effective way to get useful information and stay in rapport, is use labels.

“Labels allow you to attach tentative descriptors to the dynamics, emotions, and circumstances that the other side is implying. By using labels, you are attempting to gain an understanding of what’s going on in the other side’s mind without necessarily committing to any one belief.” Voss

While you may use a mislabel—or label something incorrectly—you are still able to uncover more information. Using phrases like It seems,  It sounds like or It feels like, gives you an out. 

“I didn’t say I necessarily believed that. I just said it seemed that way.” 

So, what should you do when you are going in to see a patient or staff member that is likely to be in an unproductive emotional state? Use labels or ask questions?

Prior to heading into a consult or meeting, do a bit of homework up front. Above all, as part of your preparation, come up with a corresponding label for each open question you see yourself asking. Use the label first to gather the information you need.

Using Labels vs. Questions

Here are a few examples to give you a better idea of what I’m talking about:

Calibrated Question: Corresponding Asking Label:
What’s upset you? Seems like you are really upset.
What’s caused you to be so angry? Seems like something’s caused you to be really angry.
What obstacles might prevent you from committing to this plan? Seems like you have an idea as to what
obstacles might prevent you from
committing to this plan.
What’s the biggest challenge you’re
facing right now?
Seems like you have a feel for the biggest
challenge you’re facing right now.
How can I support you? Seems like you’ve got an idea about how I can support you.
What do you have in mind? Seems like you’ve got something on your mind.
What’s going on? Seems like something’s going on.
How is it that you’ve given up on your
Seems like you have given up on your

After you get a feel for adapting open questions for labelling, you can adapt the labels slightly to get even more specific and uncover more information.

You will find that either the calibrated question or the label will be the key to opening the other side up and unlocking useful of information. 

You are free to (and in fact should) toggle back and forth between asking open questions and labelling as needed. 


When dealing with strong emotions, start with the label. Follow up with the calibrated question. Ask one question or make one statement at a time. And then listen carefully to the answer before responding. 

Do not under any circumstances be thinking about your next question or statement whilst the person is answering your first one.

If you do this you will miss vital pieces of information that could help resolve a problem.

When you view dealing with strong emotions as an information gathering exercise rather than a confrontation you will be in a better emotional state yourself to deal with what’s going on.

You may not be the cause of the other person’s unproductive emotional state but you can be a part of finding a solution. 

To learn more about motivational tools through effective communication download my eBook:

“Improving Patient Motivation In Physiotherapy”

I wrote this eBook in response to the most common question I get asked and that is “How do I motivate my patients?”

If you would like to fine-tune your communication skills when working with resistant patients, you might consider working with a coach or mentor.

Or perhaps your staff would benefit from training in this area.

Contact us, and find out more about what we can offer you.

Please share this article with a colleague you care about…

Grab a copy of How to Help Patients
Find Their Own Motivation

Please input your name & email to get access to the download button!

Call +61 417 817 388