Back down from challenges. In our achievement-oriented society, backing down from a verbal challenge can be the equivalent of not accepting a triple-dog-dare on the playground. But that’s exactly what smart communicators do. They know that our quick, cheap, and easy digital devices allow us to have far too many unnecessary conversations, engage in way too much unnecessary chatter, and get our hands (and thumbs) on too many irrelevant issues. Smart communicators are willing to let some problems go unsolved so that they can focus on those that are truly important.
I recommend dividing challenges and problems into three categories: Now, Delay, and Avoid. Problems in the Now category require an immediate, solution-based conversation. Don’t automatically assign too many issues to this category—this is the most frequent miscalculation of our “everything now” digital age.
Delay is your default category. Many issues don’t need your active intervention, and others may disappear completely or resolve themselves without your participation. Finally, some issues reflect highly emotional, incredibly complicated, and other volatile feelings that reside deep inside the other person. Avoid them unless they are impairing the accomplishment of critical work.
Let difficult people win. Jane talks too much. Jim is incredibly stubborn. Uncle Billy loves to argue. Whether they’re controlling, critical, or cranky, the behaviors that make someone a difficult person tend to spark frequent confrontations—even though we’re unlikely to influence these people. For example, we wrestle with Jane to get a word in edgewise. We struggle to change Jim’s mind. We fire a barrage of points and counterpoints into Uncle Billy’s arguments. It’s time to quit trying.
At the end of a conversation, the difficult person remains the same, but often you are in a weaker position. Only a commitment to let go of your desire to “win” by imposing your will on the other person can realistically and consistently improve your communication with difficult people. When you find yourself with no choice but to interact with a difficult person, have modest expectations, avoid tangents, and stay focused on your end goal. It’s really all you can do.
Swallow your pride and say you’re sorry. Apologizing to another person isn’t easy, even when you know you’re in the wrong. It’s even tougher when you think the other person is being unreasonable. And, of course, it doesn’t help that certain people view apologies as a sign of weakness. Yet I believe you should apologize anyway.
In so many situations, a well-placed “I’m sorry” can keep an incident from escalating and can prevent lasting harm. Usually, salvaging a relationship and staying on track to accomplish your goals is worth a momentary blow to your pride.
Apologizing might seem weak, but in fact, it’s a powerful communication maneuver. Most people have a very hard time refusing a sincere and timely apology. “I’m sorry” cures a wide variety of interpersonal ills.
Ignore insults. When somebody offends you, your inner Neanderthal rushes to the front of your brain, urging you to club your foe over the head and show the other person that you won’t allow yourself to be treated that way. But guess what? Your inner Neanderthal isn’t known for restraint, civility, or strategic thinking. Sure, it might feel good to act on your emotions and indulge your impulses, but responding aggressively to insults can also result in a lot of long-term damage.
Think about it: A hotheaded retort to your boss’s criticism could cost you a good performance review, a project, or even a promotion. Allowing your spouse to draw you into a harsh fight can do serious damage to your relationship. No, I’m not suggesting that feelings don’t matter. And I’m not suggesting that you should let anyone insult you consistently. But people say things they quickly come to regret all the time. Don’t let your inner Neanderthal lunge for the club; give the other person a chance to self-correct instead.