Have you ever wished that there were a magic button you could push to get through to someone? You’d be in the middle of a difficult and frustrating conversation, where nothing was clicking, and suddenly, with one touch, your message would come across and you can hear and be heard. That button might be closer than you think.
There are two essential communication skills that will help you connect with coworkers, potential employers, and even strangers. These skills will shorten conflicts and may even prevent them. According to Dr. Rick Brinkman and Dr. Rick Kirschner, authors of Dealing with People You Can’t Stand, conflict occurs when we focus on our differences instead of what we have in common. Their book is focused on how to connect and work with someone who thinks very differently from you. Drs. Rick and Rick write that you must first blend with someone – convince them that you are like them – before you can redirect their thoughts or actions.
Blending can be a verbal or non-verbal process. You blend verbally by finding things you have in common: liking the same foods or movies, attending the same church or school, or having acquaintances in common. You also blend when you ask someone for their opinion (“I’m thinking that I’m in the mood for a cheeseburger; what about you?”) or validate what they’re feeling (“I agree – it’s freezing in here!”)
These examples sound trivial, but they have a measurable impact on your relationships. Non-verbal blending signals can be equally powerful. When someone is expressing pain, joy, surprise, or any strong emotion, we often mirror their expression. When we want to connect with a young child, we kneel down to put ourselves at their level. When someone’s posture indicates that they’re energized or tense, we mirror their body language. Mirroring is an ancient instinct, and one that indicates that you’re empathetic and connected to the other person. It’s essential in the healthy development of babies and young children, and I would argue that it’s essential to all healthy relationships.
Drs. Rick and Rick write “…there is no middle ground. Consciously or consciously, people want to know ‘are you with me or not?’ You come across as being on common ground or worlds apart.” What that tells me is that you may think you’re being neutral, but you’re almost never perceived as being so. You’re either being warm and supportive, or you’re against me. Boy, does that explain a lot of the misunderstandings from my work life.
The next step is redirection – getting a difficult person (someone who is in conflict with you) off their unproductive rant and on to a more productive course. The idea is to defuse their anger so you can really discuss the issue and come to a solution. Drs. Rick and Rick say that the first step in redirection is tactful interruption. Break into the rant with polite repetition (be patient; it may take a while.) “Excuse me, Glenda. Excuse me, Glenda. Glenda, please listen for a moment.” Eventually, your polite repetition will wear down the ranter and help her wind down enough to listen.
Then it’s your turn. Speak your truth. “From where I stand, this is an issue of process, not intent.” State your perception calmly and quietly. Remind the ranter of your common goal and offer a solution that might work for you both. It may take some gentle toughness to command her attention long enough to speak.
One example in Dealing with People You Can’t Stand was masterful. A customer service agent at the airport’s lost luggage counter was besieged after a series of flights were changed or cancelled. One passenger was raging at her as if she had personally decided to lose his luggage and make him miserable. Despite her best and most skillful attempts to appease him and help him, he continued to berate her. Finally, she quietly set her pen down and looked him right in the eye. When she had his attention, after a long pause, she said, “Sir, there are only two people standing at this counter who could possibly care about the future of your baggage.” She paused to let that sink in. “And frankly, sir, one of them is rapidly losing interest.” He was putty in her hands after that.