This is How the Best Communicators Respond to Difficult Situations

Communication skills are a valuable part of any professional’s skill set, but when you’re a manager, they’re absolutely necessary. Furthermore, if you’re an executive, they’re possibly the most critical skills you can have. So it’s amazing to me how often I meet executives who have little to no idea how to respond to a staff member or colleague when the other person has been talking. It’s vital for managers and executives to be excellent communicators.

Most of us truly believe we’re good listeners. We smile, we nod in agreement, and we’re supportive. Unfortunately, many of us have stopped listening to the person speaking and are formulating our replies in our brains and waiting for that little pause to interject our thoughts to them. We’re no longer setting aside judgment and striving to understand. We’re turning the situation into a conversation, which may or may not be the right response.

In addition, how well do we respond? Because it’s the response—the feedback—that signals we’ve heard the message as intended.

Listening well and responding appropriately takes a fair amount of self-control. A good listener works to completely understand what the other person is saying—without judging, without giving advice.

The five most common responses for communicators 

The appropriate response after listening completely, of course, depends largely on the situation and the person. Here are the five most common responses according to most communication experts:

  1. Reflecting
  2. Probing
  3. Using attentive body language
  4. Deflecting
  5. Advising

So, how do you know which response to use when? In a nutshell, if someone is asking your advice or opinion and they want counsel, advising and deflecting are the best options. Otherwise, reflecting and probing are good choices. And, in every situation, use attentive body language. Do not be distracted by phones ringing, work on your desk, coworkers passing by in the hallway or the butterfly outside the window. Pay attention.

The art of reflecting … and the finer art of probing

Reflecting is another term for paraphrasing—something most of us have attempted awkwardly. Often—unless you’re a skilled listener—repeating back something that someone just told you feels strained or contrived. Or, you might miss the biggest detail of the story and tip off that you weren’t giving the problem your full attention. Reflecting takes practice so it sounds natural.

Instead of simply parroting back, try summarizing the key points and then asking a question (probing). “So, that’s a tough situation—you’ve worked the past two weeks, your co-workers haven’t shown up, and no one’s even noticed your effort. Has this happened before, or is this the first time?” The process of reflecting and asking clarifying questions should be nonjudgmental. Your goal is to make the other person feel understood. They haven’t asked for your advice. They just want to be heard.

If you’re more the silent type, listening and nodding is also an acceptable response, suggests psychologytoday.com. If a co-worker is venting over an expanding workload or unacknowledged success, the key is to convey that you’ve heard. Also appropriate might be: “That must be so frustrating” or “I can see how that would upset you. What else happened?”

However, if the person venting has been complaining to you daily for a week or two, your response needs to change. Here’s a previous post of ours devoted to handling complaining co-workers.

More situations where reflecting and probing are more appropriate   

Reflecting and probing is appropriate when you’re getting feedback, or someone is confronting you. Very different than merely listening to another person’s complaints, this is more personal— requiring more self-control. But, you still need to let the other person know that you understand what they’re saying. (Even if you don’t agree, the goal is always to first make sure the other person feels understood.)

Why is it important to first let the other person know we understand?

  • Reduces defensiveness
  • Opens the door to “how we can both get what we want”
  • Clarifies values and end results
  • Jointly develops a third alternative

Start by creating the attitude and the ability to understand using this checklist:

  1. Do I have a win-win attitude?
  2. Have I released my attachment to my attitudes and positions?
  3. Have I become open to the fact that other perspectives exist?
  4. Can I consistently reflect my understanding of the other person?
  5. Do I focus on feelings as well as words?
  6. Will I watch nonverbal cues to discern feelings?

So, that covers why we seek understanding and how to prepare mentally and when to use reflecting and probing. Next week, in my blog, we’ll discuss the two things executives especially must master if they are to lead others successfully: deflecting and advising.

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