This is How the Best Communicators Respond to Difficult Situations, Part 2

Last week, we started to look at the five ways people can respond to communications with others. The best communicators are able to match the appropriate response to the situation. The problem lies in the fact that most of us aren’t nearly as skilled at listening as we think we are (or want to be). Therefore, we don’t respond as well as we should. In everyday life, this can be somewhat of a problem, but generally doesn’t move past the irritating habit stage. However, if you’re a manager or executive in the workplace, it can lead to broken trust with your staff … a major setback for your professional image … or possibly even legal consequences from disgruntled employees.

As a reminder, here are the five most common responses during a conversation according to communication experts:

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

If you want to see my full post on the top three above, check it out here.

To review … reflecting and probing … you want to gather information by using conversation-encouraging questions. Don’t interrogate. Reflection, in a nutshell, is basically paraphrasing or summarizing what the speaker has just told you. You’re simply confirming that you are hearing the situation correctly. Often, you’ll follow up by asking questions, or probing, for more information.

Get clarification on who, how, what, where, when, which and why. Affirm your understanding as you go along by repeating the information back to them in your own words. In the feedback scenario above, you could say, “So you feel the procedures I’m using are slowing down the overall process? What would an ideal schedule look like for your team?”

And, as far as body language is concerned, using positive and open body language at all times is essential if you want to be a great communicator.

How the best communicators use the deflecting method

The short answer is … not often, if at all.

Deflecting shifts the conversation to another topic, but it must be done professionally and with great diplomacy. When we deflect from what we’ve been told, rather than acknowledging it, we can unintentionally communicate that we haven’t listened and that we aren’t interested. Deflecting often shows that we’re preoccupied with another topic.

Many of us deflect unconsciously by sharing our personal experiences when we should be focusing on the other party. In our minds, we’re thinking, “You’re not alone in feeling this way because when this happened to me. I felt the same as you!” Our hearts are attempting to create a bond between us and the speaker.

Unfortunately, 99.9 percent of the time, the message conveyed is that we’re not listening and that we don’t care. When it’s between two friends at lunch, it doesn’t do too much damage. However, if your subordinate is sitting in that other chair and you start talking about yourself, that reflects badly on your professional image. You can get the reputation that it’s always about you and soon none of your people will want to talk to you unless absolutely necessary.

Deflection is OK when you’re being asked about your experiences

This is not to say that sharing your experiences is never helpful. On the contrary, mentors often help their protégés by relating their own experiences. It’s a way to reassure their protégés that their concerns are normal and that their problems are solvable. But, in counseling situations, be careful to use deflecting only at appropriate times.

Speakers may not know that you have heard and understood what they have said if you deflect by moving on to another topic or shifting the focus to yourself or your own experiences. The best listeners keep deflecting to a minimum. If you pair reflection with deflection (a bit of a tongue-twister), the speaker will know you heard them and will receive your advice with an open mind.

If you want my advice, use the advising method with caution

There is one rule of thumb for managers when it comes to using the advising method: Make sure the other person is asking for your advice first!

There’s little doubt in my mind that you’ve been on the other side of the situation, getting lots of advice that you didn’t ask for. We all have. How did it make you feel? Pretty defensive, I imagine. So when you’re on the other side of the desk, make sure the other person wants your advice. If you’re not sure, I’ve found that a straightforward “Are you asking for my advice?” works wonders.

Research has shown that this problem is particularly common between men and women in the workplace. Women often discuss their problems and concerns with men just as a means of developing interpersonal bonds. It’s a way of making conversation that goes a little deeper than small talk because it’s personally revealing. Furthermore, in most cases, it helps foster a mutually supportive relationship.

However, when men respond with unsolicited advice (a common response between the sexes), they believe they are being helpful to their female counterparts. But, when no advice is solicited, providing it is actually presumptuous. When you tell someone how they should solve their problems, you assume a position of superiority, not mutuality.

Give your staff your support and they’ll gladly give theirs to you

Of course, being supportive often involves giving advice. My point is that we should (a) recognize that sometimes people share their problems with us just because they want us to listen, and (b) advising people who tell us about their problems can sometimes be taken as condescending or belittling. Sometimes it’s better to just reflect.

Responding well is part of the listening process. Respond in a way that signals to the other person that you understand what they’re saying. Ask clarifying questions. Periodically affirm your understanding by repeating the information back to the other person. Unless you’re invited to give advice, keep your stories and feedback for a later conversation. When you give your staff your support in the proper way, they will be most happy to give theirs back to you.


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