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January 24, 2013 / mike54martin

Dealing With Difficult People: Ask Questions


Almost all men and lots of women don’t ask questions and yet assume that they know the answer. Duh!! Even if you’re afraid try asking questions directly of your difficult person. What’s the worst that can happen, they’re already intolerable?

Why don’t we ask questions when we don’t know something? That’s the real question. Some people like to pretend they are smarter than they really are and others somehow see it as a failure of some sort on their behalf. Asking questions is not an admission of failure. It is a statement of your intention to understand or be understood.

There is an old Chinese proverb that says “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask questions is a fool forever”. Which would you prefer? In addition to not being considered a fool most of us would prefer to be successful. Sometimes to be successful we have to ask for help.

Some people don’t ask questions of the difficult people in their life because they don’t want to hear the answer. Because knowing the truth about a situation may move them out of their comfort zone and might force them to take an action that they don’t know if they can handle. But if you want to know what’s really going on inside the head of the difficult person, why not just ask?

In the immortal words of one of my heroes, Kermit the Frog “Asking questions is a very good way to find out about something.” Try it you might like it.

Steps to asking good questions: As Kermit said the easiest way to learn about someone and their ideas is to ask them. But your difficult people are sometimes reluctant to talk about themselves.

To get them going here are a few basic steps to asking questions:

Create a safe environment

This may include the time and location of your little chat. Find a quiet place with no one else around and begin by noting that you have noticed some difficulties. Ask them for their version of events in a non-threatening and friendly manner. If they grow cold or hostile, back away until another time. If they are open then keep going. Be willing to share information about yourself to create a two way communication link. If necessary ask if it’s okay for you to ask a few questions. Try not to put them on the defensive with “why” questions right off the bat. They will tell you “why” if they feel comfortable enough.

Give them time to answer

One guideline is to give them up to ten seconds to answer a question before asking anything else. Remember that this is a test as to whether you can be trusted, not them. A short pause as they think about an answer is a good thing. At least you’ve got them thinking.

Listen carefully to their answers

Restate their answer in your own words to be sure you understand the reply. Avoid selective listening. That’s where you are filtering out or misunderstanding what is said. Some experts claim that we automatically eliminate from 70 to 90 percent of what is said to us. Paying attention is not only polite; it’s the best way to get what you need from your conversation partner. Participate mentally and physically in the dialogue using facial gestures, and body language and the occasional grunt or uh-huh to let them know that you’re still there. Smile. It just might be your best weapon for getting them to talk.

Build on what they say and ask follow up questions

If you are really paying attention you will notice that your difficult person is telling you a story, or at least their version of events. Think of yourself as a facilitator in a story telling contest and you want to know what comes next. So you ask them, and then what happened? If the story goes really well you might even ask them how they feel/felt about the story. But if they’re not ready for that yet, that’s okay. You’ve opened the door and it will never completely shut again.

Thank them for their time

When the conversation is over you should thank them for their time. It is not only good manners; it’s a signal to them that you respect them. It’s also a good way to end whatever type of conversation you’ve just had, on equal terms. No matter how grumpy, crusty, or pig-headed they are you will know a little more about what makes them tick, and what makes them explode. They will also know a little more about you and maybe realize that you are not their problem after all.

Excerpted from “Change the Things You Can: Dealing with Difficult People” by Mike Martin


Mike Martin is also the author of The Walker on the Cape, a Sgt. Windflower mystery.


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