How to Communicate With Difficult People
Knowing the right thing to say isn’t always easy, particularly in difficult, awkward or heated situations. But communication is more than what you say; communication is a two-way process. It involves talking and listening.Knowing the right thing to say is a lot easier if you first know how to listen. If you listen well then you are more likely to respond in a constructive, effective way.
Active listening. The good news is that there’s a simple and effective technique that you can learn. It’s called ‘active listening’ and it’s effective in two ways. First, active listening helps you to be clear about what the other person is saying. Second, because you have a better understanding of the other person’s perspective, active listening helps you to deal with them more effectively. Active listening closes the loop in communication gaps and so minimizes the likelihood of communication breakdowns.
It is called active listening because you are active in the process of listening; you participate and make an effort to understand what the other person is saying and why they are saying it. It means concentrating on what they’re saying, making sense and being clear about what they really mean. It’s a simple technique but you need to practice!
Minimal encouragers. The most obvious and natural way that you usually show that you are listening is by using non-verbal communication to acknowledge what someone else is saying, making eye contact, for example, nodding your head in acknowledgement or shaking your head in disagreement.
These little signals are known as ‘minimal encouragers’. Minimal encouragers are simple, direct ways to let the other person know you are listening. Sounds and words like ‘uh-huh’, ‘yes’, ‘oh’, ‘mmm’ and little actions like nodding in the appropriate places show that you are listening. With little in the way of interruption by you, minimal encouragers encourage the other person to talk. When you are dealing with a difficult person, the trick is to use minimal encouragers calmly and in a neutral way, rather than, for example, a sarcastic or angry way.
Reflective listening. This is the key skill used in active listening. It shows the extent to which you’ve understood the other person. It’s a simple technique but it requires you to concentrate and focus. You have to work at it. There are three aspects to reflective listening: repeating, summarizing and paraphrasing.
- Repeating. When you are repeating, you are simply saying exactly what the other person has just said. For example, ‘You think that I’ve been harsh?’ or ‘You weren’t calling me stupid?’ All you are doing is repeating what you’ve heard to make sure you heard it correctly. This is exactly the same as when someone gives you directions on how to get to another part of town or tells you a phone number: you are simply repeating the directions or the numbers back to the other person so that they can con rm you’ve under- stood correctly. And, just like when you repeat directions or a phone number, you are not required to agree with what the other person has said. You just confirm that you’ve listened and understood.
- Summarizing. This involves briefly and concisely summing up what the other person has said, the main points. For example, ‘So, you’re saying that first, Sam was only doing her job, that you think I came down too hard on her. Second, she’s not said anything to you about it but you feel that you should defend her. Is that right?’
- paraphrasing. This is a restatement of what the other person has said as you understood it. For example, ‘I think what you’re saying is that I expect too much and that some members of the team are feeling that nothing they do is ever good enough. Is that right?’ Begin with a phrase such as: ‘Let me see if I understand so far...’ ,‘I think what you’re saying is...’ .
With both paraphrasing and summarizing, you express in your own words your understanding of what the other person said and you end by asking, ‘Is that what you said?’ or ‘Is that right?’
Reflecting in this way gives the other person the opportunity to confirm that this is what they’ve said. It also allows them to refute or clarify what they’ve said. For example, you could say, ‘It sounds like you’re disappointed in me.’ The other person can pause to think about it. They may then agree, that yes, they are disappointed, or no, they’re not disappointed: they’re actually very upset!
It’s worth noting that there are benefits to overstating or understating a reflection; either one may cause a person to clarify or reconsider. For example, if you overstated the fact that someone felt you didn’t listen properly, in order to get them to clarify, you could overstate what they said by saying, ‘You think I always interrupt and I never listen. Is that what you said?’
Of course, it would be quite odd to summarize or paraphrase what someone said every time they spoke to you. The point is – and this is a crucial point – to listen as if you were going to reflect back. Whether you do so or not. This is why reflective listening is so powerful. It focuses your attention, stops you from interrupting, helps you to listen and be clear about what the other person is actually saying.
Ask questions. Another advantage of reflective listening is that you are more likely to be aware of gaps in your understanding, so you are more likely to ask appropriate questions to help clarify your understanding.In any situation where you need clarification or information, there are two types of questions: open questions and closed questions. Open questions usually begin with the words ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘how’, ‘tell me’, ‘explain’ and ‘describe’. For example:
‘What’s the problem with...?’ ‘Tell me more about...’
‘Why do you think...?’
When you ask open questions, you encourage the other person to explain more. On the other hand, closed questions – such as ‘Are you upset?’ and ‘Don’t you want to do it?’ – usually get a short response.
Open questions invite a person to express in their own words their ideas, thoughts, opinions and feelings. Closed questions give control to the person asking the questions. When you ask a closed question, it’s likely that you will need to ask another question, and if you use too many closed questions, it’ll be difficult to carry on a successful conversation.
When you ask open questions, though, do give the other person enough time to respond. They may need to think before they answer, so don’t see a pause as an opportunity for you to jump in with your ideas and opinions.
Be sure that your questions don’t come across as interrogative, attacking, defensive or rude; try to pose them in a calm, neutral manner. It’s important to maintain a positive mindset when you deal with difficult people. Ask ‘how’ questions to get input, to get them to share responsibility for the conversation, for example, ‘How would you like things to be different?’
Let the other person finish each point before you ask a new question. Interrupting is a waste of time. It can distract and frustrate him or her. But once they have replied, you may need to summarize or paraphrase their answer before you continue with your response.
Identify and learn from good listeners. Can you think of someone you know who is good at managing difficult people? Do you think they are good listeners? How do they show they’ve taken on board what the other person is saying? What questions do they ask?
Learn to ‘read’ other people. You can practice ‘reading’ other people. Turn off the sound on your TV. Watch people being interviewed on the news. Observe people interacting in dramas and soap operas. Be aware of the non-verbal communication, the gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice and so on. What conclusions do you draw from particular combinations of non- verbal communication?
Look for combinations that support your assumptions. If you decided that, for example, someone looks defensive, ask yourself why you think that. Is it because they have a glaring stare? Because their shoulders are hunched up?
Practicing ‘reading’ other people and situations will help you to notice subtle cues during your own difficult exchanges and conversations, so you can react to situations more tactfully and effectively.
When you’re waiting at the bus stop or queuing in the supermarket, use the time to do a bit of people watching. Observe people on a bus, train or in a café and watch how they act and react to each other. When you watch others, try to guess what they are saying or get a sense of what is going on between them. Are they relaxed, anxious, irritated? What does the way they hold themselves say about them? What about the way they talk? Does everything match up?
Speak fluent body language. What about your own body language? Does it help or hinder in a difficult situation? Mostly, you are probably unaware of how much you are conveying non-verbally, but even if you are silent you are still communicating through your posture and facial expressions.
Often, you can exacerbate a difficult situation without realizing it. Your body language and tone of voice can exaggerate, understate or contradict what you say. You may, for example, say sorry but your tone and body language could be communicating your frustration and annoyance.
Other people draw conclusions about your attitude and, when faced with mixed messages, either they focus on your non-verbal messages or your mixed messages create confusion and distrust in the other person. So aim to avoid sending mixed messages; make your words, gestures, facial expressions and tone match.
There’s no need to adopt a range of poses, gestures and expressions that feel strange or unnatural to you. When you’re dealing with a difficult person, you simply need to adopt a couple of confident-looking gestures or expressions and the rest of your body and mind will match up.
Understanding and managing difficult people isn’t just about listening to them and knowing the right questions to ask. Situations like telling someone you are upset or angry with them, that you are not going to be treated badly by them or that their negativity is draining you all require that you know when and how to say so in honest and appropriate ways.