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How to Talk to People
Part 2 - How to Talk to Difficult People
I know what you are thinking. You want to know how to argue with people who think differently than you and win! Everyone who disagrees with you is a difficult person. This means that you are also disagreeable, by your definition, from the other person’s perspective. Before I give you a few tips, I’d like you to imagine what it must be like for someone else to be talking to you, especially in moments of conflicting ideas and priorities. Keep yourself in mind while you read the rest of this short essay.
The best argument is the one that didn’t happen. Not because you practice avoidance. But because you can turn a potential argument into a productive discussion for the benefit of all involved. You can be combative or a co-creator, contributor, and generally the cool cucumber in the conversation. The only time you should run away from the opportunity to have a meaningful, possibly spirited discussion is when the person in front of you believes their own lies and loves their drama. It’s not that they refuse to accept reality. They simply live in a different one. With no basis of shared understanding, common acceptance of facts and definitions, the two of you are doomed to failure before you even start. Be the wise person who recognizes the fool and keeps away (from the fool or the topic). Unless keeping away is not an option. Like when you live under the same roof or share genetic material and the Thanksgiving table, or your paycheck depends on it.
Your power lies in your calm, your ability to stay in equanimity through whatever comes. Possibly the person just wants to be heard or hear themselves talk. You need not respond. Just hum and nod your head in acknowledgment. It goes a long way to soften the tone. Remember, people often vent, rage, and preach because they feel disempowered, helpless, and confused. The talking, apparent conviction, and latching onto crazy ideas are their way of coping with uncertainty, insignificance, and powerlessness. Give them some space to release the pressure valve. Tell them you appreciate them even if you don’t share their point of view. Remember, their opinion about something is not a judgment on you, even if they call you stupid for disagreeing. They wear a filter distorting their perception. You can only bring clarity to the situation if you can speak from a place of equanimity.
Try shifting the focus with a joke or another mental distraction. Point something out that has nothing to do with where the conversation is going. You don’t have to go off the cliff with it. Your difficult person may realize what you are trying to do and be relieved that you can still drink a beer together without hating each other. On the other hand, they may simply follow in the new direction, not noticing. After all, the average attention span of an adult American these days is 2 ½ minutes, the amount of time it takes to microwave a dinner plate.
Pick your battles wisely. You don’t have to fight them all. You don’t have to win them all. You may be the one that’s off the deep end. Keep an open mind. Practice healthy skepticism even towards your own convictions. You may learn something along the way and upgrade your programming.
In the 1980s, psychologists developed a taxonomy of personality traits. The theory has seen some upgrades since to include six instead of just Five Big Personality Traits. Openness (to new ideas and experience) is one of the five. The others are Extroversion (and Introversion), Agreeableness, Neuroticism (later named Emotionality/Sensitivity), and Conscientiousness. Honesty/Humility was added later. The characteristics within each trait are present on a continuum, meaning we have all of the traits but some dominate. If you are talking to someone high on Openness, low on Neuroticism, and high on Conscientiousness and Humility, you are in for a great time of meandering conversations and explorations. However, if your opponent embodies the exact opposites, good luck to you. You will need all of your patience, effective communications skills, and a nice drink afterward.
If you absolutely must interact with someone like that, focus on behavior, not character assassination. Bring data, specific examples, verifiable facts, especially if this difficult person is your employee or your boss. But even more importantly, if this person is your significant other. After all, you’ll have to share a bed a little later on. Address inappropriate or undesirable behavior and still assure the person that you value them and like them. When you focus on behavior, you can figure out solutions together. If you get tempted to judge them, call them names, and degrade their effort or intentions, you are setting the stage for a major confrontation and a lot of yelling.
This should still be two-way communication. So, listen to how the other person responds—mine for the important information. Ignore the useless, self-soothing or attacks on your character. Just like you didn’t even hear it.
Depending on the situation and your level of involvement and commitment to this person, you may have to look for perspective from others. Perhaps your friends see things differently than you. Unfortunately, some dynamics are so engrained into people who spend a lot of time together that they become blind to what is really happening and rely on knee-jerk reactions.
If you tried everything and nothing helps, move on. As in leave. Leave the conversation, the room, the job (of fire the person), the friendship, etc. You know your tolerance for BS. You also know the price you pay to put up with a difficult person creating difficult situations. So you may be justified in considering severing ties.
Remember, life is messy. Sometimes you make the mess. Sometimes you have to clean up after someone else. Always think of how to make tomorrow better starting now! There’s absolutely no time to waste.
Happy figuring it out. If you liked this, please subscribe, comment, and share!