Fifi was obviously disturbed about something. Mort couldn't tell if she was mad or sad or what. But not happy. Mort is a good guy and he thought if he could get Fifi to talk about it, she'd feel better. He wanted to be a good listener. He wanted to show his empathy and bring them closer together. So he asked, "Are you still mad at me for giving you that list so late?"
She instantly got indignant. "You must not think much of me if you could think I'd still be mad about that!"
Not exactly the effect Mort was looking for.
He made two mistakes. First, the question he asked was a yes or no question. Open ended questions are better. Open ended questions cannot be answered with a yes or no. They give people more freedom to say what they want. They can't be answered by a single word. They are more conducive to communication, and less likely to be taken as an accusation or interrogation.
Secondly, if Mort had revealed his intentions first, Fifi would be even less likely to take his question as an accusation. It's a good idea to let people know what you are trying to accomplish. Be open about your intentions. It not only makes your communication better, but trying to clarify your own intentions helps you, too. Imagine Mort saying something like this: "It looks like you're not feeling so good and I want to help you feel better. Maybe we could talk or go for a walk or something."
This leaves Fifi in control. It is willing and helpful without being controlling, and would be difficult to misinterpret.
And Mort is setting a positive tone. He isn't rejecting Fifi's state or her feelings but inviting her to talk about it and saying he wants to help. That's the kind of thing that really helps. That'll get them communicating. That'll open the channels between them. You can do this with just about anyone and it starts with revealing your intentions.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.