Never, ever ask this question! It is the quickest way to offend someone and turn an ordinary conversation into an argument.

We've all encountered someone who is upset, distressed, angry, sad or not in a positive frame of mind. In an effort to find out what's wrong, we sometimes blurt out a rather offense query.

The question (in question) is "What's your problem?" (Emphasize "your", say it with an attitude and be sure to scrunch up your face.)

We've all said it or had others ask it of us. And the typical response is...? "Me? I don't have a problem! You're the one with the problem!"

Whoa! What just happened there? I'm asking a simple question of concern and you're reacting defensively. Now for sure someone's got a problem but it certainly isn't me!

(I hear some of you laughing. Can you relate?)

Why is it we react so strongly to a seemingly innocent inquiry? Oftentimes, we hear something very different than what the other party is actually saying.

Rather than recognize the sincerity of the original request (assuming it is heartfelt), we hear an implied criticism. "You are a problem!" We take personal offense - we are being told there is something wrong with us. Feeling as though we are under attack, we respond with resistance or hostility.

(I find this reaction odd because if that same person walked into their mechanic's garage and was asked, "What's your problem?" they wouldn't react the same way. Why? Because one understands that the mechanic is referring to their vehicle and not them. )

So imagine how different the response would be if the one being questioned realized the other person was referring to their situation or experience and not them personally? We all have problems (an issue we're struggling with, a dilemma that needs to be resolved, a concern weighing heavily on our minds). Those internal issues are reflected in our behavior - the way we speak, the way we act, in our body language. The individual is addressing the apparent issue, not who we are as a person.

So what alternative approach can one use to better uncover the root of the problem?

Select one of the following and see if it results in a more cooperative response:

1. "You seem upset." (My observation, not a criticism) "Is something wrong?" ("Some thing " is clearly addressing the issue as opposed to attacking the individual.)

2. "Is everything ok?" (Again, "every thing " deals with a non-human entity.) "Is there anything I can do to help?" (An offer of assistance.)

Can you see how these questions sound less threatening? This will reduce the odds of the other person becoming defensive. While not 100% foolproof, they certainly increase the chances for a more positive outcome. They have consistently worked well for me, especially when dealing with extremely hostile people. I hope your results are equally as beneficial.

Author's Bio: 

Internationally known motivational and inspirational speaker, Janet is a graduate of Englewood Cliffs College (now St. Peter’s) and is a leader in the field of anger management and conflict resolution.

She serves as a consultant to such companies at the U.S. Army, U.S. Postal Service, Hoffman-La Roche, Carnival Cruise Lines, AT&T, United Way, YWCA, and more.

Janet is a registered trainer for the N.J. Education Association, training teachers and students throughout the state.

As a survivor of domestic violence, she also works as an instructor at a battered women’s shelter.

Janet hosts her own TV show, Discovering Your Personal Power and is a frequent quest on television and radio. She recently appeared on Fox TV, Steve Adubato’s One-On-One, was highlighted by NBC News and appeared on many others. She has also co-hosted her own talk radio show as well.
An award-winning author and freelance writer, Janet writes a column for the Daily Record as well as articles for such magazines as Woman’s World, N.J. Family, Prime Woman and Living Solo.

She has co-authored a book with Mark Victor Hanson (of Chicken Soup For the Soul) entitled “101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life, Vol. 3”, wrote “The Secret Side of Anger” (currently available on CD), and has four published children’s books. Janet is listed in “Who’s Who in Authors”.

Additionally, Janet has spoken at the United Nations, Notre Dame University, is a member of the National Police Suicide Foundation and a board member for the World Addiction Foundation. She has been a committee member and keynote speaker for the YWCA’s National Week Without Violence Campaign.

In 2001, Janet founded the nation’s first support group of its kind for families struggling with issues of estrangement. The group, Reunion of Hearts: Reconciling and Reconnecting Estranged Families, was dedicated to the emotional and spiritual healing of family members and very successfully reunited more than 90% of the families.

Janet is also a member of NJAWBO and A Vision In Motion Speaker’s Bureau.

She has been nominated for many prestigious awards including the Russ Berrie “Make a Difference Award”, and has received many others.

Added to her credentials are numerous awards for her nature photography. And in 1994 – 95, Janet was one of the nation’s top female marathon race walkers, winning gold medals at the state level and gold, silver and bronze medals for national marathon competitions. No one has yet broken her record of power walking every single day for more than 26 years.

In her spare time, Janet rescues abandoned and abused dogs (she currently has 3 beautiful mutts), hikes, and spends time with her family.