By Daniel Robin
When you have a difficult message to convey to someone, how do you get
them to listen non-defensively? This article explores methods of delivering so-called
"bad news" with maximum effectiveness and minimum offensiveness.
Consider the following situation at the office: a co-worker consistently
deflects, resists, or lashes back each time you initiate an open an honest discussion of
an issue. Youve become frustrated or upset with this persons attitude and
inability to hear your message. Youd like to express how it is for you, get to an
understanding or agreement, and move on.
Have you thought about why they would be resisting? Just to be difficult?
Fear? Self-preservation? Perhaps you just havent found a way to fly in "under
If the other persons behavior is bothering you then you own the
decision about how to handle it. Your options are: avoid, accommodate, defer to someone
else, or confront. Dont expect the other person to notice you are bothered. If you
tend to avoid confrontations, an important question to ask yourself is "Will the
situation change if I do nothing?" If you confront, you might arrive at a win-win
(negotiated) solution, a compromise, or no deal.
Given a typical situation in your work or everyday life, what would you
The best move depends on two factors: (1) your ultimate goal or agenda
with this person, and (2) their natural communication style (relative to your own style).
Lets assume you have to work together, or perhaps you're in a
relationship you value for someother reason. If you are holding a negative opinion about
the other person, you could just go directly for what you want: for them to hear you, see
it your way, and perhaps to change their behavior. Directly confronting the issue by
telling them what you think will clear it for you, but might not get your true message
across. Why? Because there are two components; there's the content of your message
("You missed another deadline") and your feelings about that message ("...
and I'm sick and tired of it."). What's your true intention in making the other
person aware of your view? Being overly assertive can get you "resolution" at
the expense of the relationship.
Assuming you want to preserve or strengthen your relationship with this
person and simultaneously get your point across, you need leverage. Have you
noticed that people always yes, always operate out of their needs, wants,
and desires? If you knew their interests (to get a raise, to get you off their back) or
their intentions (to get along better with people), youd have a way to reach your
goal without manipulating, controlling, badgering, or otherwise upsetting them. Knowing
their agenda would empower you to make a request or to offer a potential solution in terms
they will value.
So how do you find out?
Ask It Like It Is
Whats more likely to get you on track toward your goal: asking or
telling? Telling it like it is may be satisfying for you in the moment, but will it get
you the response you want? Asking direct, powerful questions rather than making a
strong assertion will reveal lots about their agenda. That awareness allows you to
move with and find ways to blend with their desired outcome, so you can reach your
Asking questions and listening creates "psychological air" for
them to hear you. In short, avoid explaining your viewpoint or making requests until after
youve discovered theirs.
Flex Over to Their Style
Youll get more leverage if you acknowledge and match their natural
communication style. Style reflects values, which points to their likely outcome,
providing a good platform for negotiation and agreement. For example, if they are a
particularly task-oriented person, they might forget to include the team in key decisions.
By knowing they care more about getting the job done than about chit-chat, youll be
better able to couch things in terms they will understand.
Consumer protection warning: unless you have permission to dig and do
process problem-solving, avoid asking "Why" questions. It puts people on the
defensive and tends to talk about the past. Instead, use questions that start with
"What" or "How." When you ask questions, to avoid sounding like an
interrogator, carry the intent to learn, be genuinely curious and interested. Its
far less threatening. Being in a state of childlike curiosity is quite
Now Its Your Turn
So, if your goal is to influence the other persons behavior, the
next step is to get them to hear and value how the situation personally affects you. When
you have rapport, the classic "I" message is probably your best "tell"
alternative. An "I" message uses the template "I feel [name the
feeling] when you [describe the behavior] because [state the consequences or
reasons for your feelings]" and is clear and direct. The sequence is key:
state your feeling first, then their part described in behavioral terms, then what it
means to you. If you begin with "You ..." everything after that will be
deflected and they'll probably say "You..." also.
There are two ways that even carefully constructed "I" messages
can backfire: (1) They often provoke defensiveness or resistance, perching the listener at
the edge of what we call the "blame frame." (2) The person might not be inspired
to care about your feelings nor about their role in producing your feelings. In business,
some "I" messages will get you a chilly "Thats your problem,
isnt it?" For instance, how would Rambo respond to "I feel scared when you
If you can assert your view with no attachment to being heard (in other
words, the message sent is for you, not for them), then an "I" message will help
you be responsible, be candid in the moment, to clear your feelings. After delivering your
"I" message, double-check to see if the person is still available to hear the message
(informational) part of your "I" message.
Another "tell" approach is called the "sandwich
technique" and will often buy you the joy of being heard: first acknowledge their
positive intentions or behavior, drop the bombshell (try "In the future, I
suggest...", or "You might consider..."), then conclude with more positive
This velvet glove approach must be brief and sincere, or youll get
interrupted with "Get to the point!" or "Okay, whats the bad
news?" This technique not only softens the blow when you have difficult news to
deliver, but it also keeps you from blurting out your feelings in ways that might not fit
for the other person.
Lastly, and probably the most effective, is to make a request. Rather than
saying "Im sick and tired of you always arriving late for our meetings!"
try "I request that you to recommit to our agreement about being on time. Does that
work for you?" Or "Will you pay me $10 every time you are more than 10 minutes
late to a meeting?" Even if your request is not accepted, at least youll make
your point without verbal abuse. Who knows, you might even acquire some supplementary
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