Talk to Difficult People Using… Science!

Kylie Quetell Communication, Employee Communications, Kylie Quetell, Managing People

I was recently asked to give a presentation regarding how to communicate with difficult people. It’s a lofty ask. There are a multitude of ways to do this, and the probability of getting it right is pretty slim. I find that the best way to do this is to employ the good old Scientific Method. Think back to your 5th grade science lessons. (It’s amazing to me how much of the world’s problems could be solved if we simply remembered all that we learned in elementary school.)

Before we start, let’s define the word “communicate.” Among some of the options, “communicate” could mean:

  • Build relationships
  • Build trust
  • Influence decisions
  • Work successfully along side
  • Take direction
  • Give direction
  • Go on a romantic date

Next, define the word “difficult.” Again, this could mean multiple things. “Difficult” could mean:

  • Aggressive
  • Passive Aggressive
  • Negative
  • Victim
  • Know-it-all
  • Narcissist
  • Controlling

This is just the tip of the iceberg. However, before you can successfully navigate these waters it is important to know what you want to accomplish and who you are dealing with. Once you have identified these two important aspects, you’ll be able to game-plan with precision. Many times, finding the solution will take a lot of good old fashion “Guess-and-Check.” Which, as a side note, is how I passed my college math classes.

As a reminder, the Scientific Method has a few steps. Ask a question, Research, Create a hypothesis, Experiment, Analyze data, Accept or reject, Communicate findings.

It seems so simple, and yet many of us are doing it wrong. Here’s an example of using the scientific method to communicate with difficult people:

  1. Ask a question. You will use the pre-work that you did to help you create the question. Do not ask, “How do I communicate with this difficult person?” Instead, ask something more specific such as, “How do I influence this narcissistic person?” Or, “How do I give direction to this negative person?”
  2. Do Research. This is informal data collection. When it comes to people, the best advice that I can give is to pay attention to how they communicate. When they speak, what gets them excited? What do they fight? What do they ignore? What does their body language show during different interactions? Also, take some time to ask trusted allies. You may ask your ally about their past successes or failures when working with this individual.
  3. Create a hypothesis. This is different than the question that you asked in step one. Consider your question, and look back at the data that you collected during your research phase. After considering all of this, create an educated prediction of what will happen. Since your goal here is to be successful, keep it positive! For example, let’s assume that I want to influence a narcissistic person. After observing them I notice that they always need to state their opinion, and they often believe it is right. They don’t typically listen when others speak. They seem to be most engaged when others ask them their opinion. In this instance, my hypothesis might be, “When I try to influence this narcissistic person I will ask them for their opinion first before telling them my idea, then after using their language to rephrase my idea, they will agree with me.”
  4. Experiment. I love this part because it seems so obvious and yet we don’t do it. The day gets away from us and before we know it we have stopped being intentional. By keeping this step in mind, it will force you to pay attention to your interactions. What does it mean to experiment in this instance? Do it. That’s it.
  5. Analyze data. Sometimes your hypothesis will fail so observably that there will be no doubt that it is time to go back to the drawing board. Sometimes, however, it’s not so obvious. That’s why it is so important to get your initial question right. Sometimes you will need to try an experiment multiple times in order to collect enough data to draw a conclusion. In my example, let’s say that I had a great conversation. I asked my narcissistic friend about their opinion and they really opened up. Let’s say they talked to me more on that day than any other day. On the outside, this looks like a huge success. However, what if we never got to the topic that I was trying to influence? If my original question was focused on communicating with a difficult person, I would have hit a home run. However, if we left the room and I never got them to agree with my idea, then really it was a failure. Take this time to look back at your hypothesis to ensure that it was specific enough.
  6. Accept or Reject. It’s ok to get it wrong. Remember, we are dealing with people. There is no perfect blue print. If you found your hypothesis to be untrue, go back to step 1. Collect more research if needed, then create another hypothesis. Start the cycle over again. If it worked, congratulations! You know hold the key to successfully communicating with your difficult person. Unless, of course, they forget to drink coffee in the morning. In that case just run away.
  7. Communicate your findings. You can do this in a couple of different ways, depending on the situation and relationship. Sometimes just celebrating your little successes is all you need. Recognize your victory! Or, it may be appropriate to share your findings with your peers. If you just cracked the code then tell the world. In a workplace with a feedback culture, it may be appropriate to carefully share your feedback with your lab rat (but don’t call them a lab rat, people tend to not like that). In one of the worst case scenarios, communicating your findings could come in the form of a resignation. Listen, we all want to feel valued and I have to say that communication is key. If you’ve tried everything under the sun including just flat out asking someone how the heck they want to be communicated with – and yet you keep failing – maybe it’s time to move on. Maybe even give the narcissist a mirror as a farewell gift – or maybe I’m the passive aggressive one.

How can you successfully communicate with difficult people? Keep it simple and experiment. What works today might not work tomorrow, and then it’s back to the drawing board. Or in this case, it’s back to elementary school and the scientific method. This process can be used in a slew of workplace dilemmas, don’t be afraid to try it out.

Good luck!