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How to Talk to Anyone

Saying the right words, in the right way, is essential for reaching any personal or professional goal. These research-based tips can help.

Salini Perera, used with permission.
Salini Perera, used with permission.

There is very little that we seek to achieve in life that can be accomplished without speaking to another person. Virtual communication can cover much of our shopping, banking, and political venting, but when we need support, a favor, a job, a partner, a sale, forgiveness, or advice, we must speak up or we will almost surely miss out.

And therein lies the challenge, because oral communication is not always intuitive or smooth, especially when it involves people we don’t know, individuals who are intentionally difficult, or loved ones with whom we simply can’t find agreement.

Years of research into various facets of human communication have revealed core insights about managing tricky interpersonal interactions. Whether you aim to help a stranger in need or survive dinner with an angry uncle, inspire co-workers or make peace with a spouse, the advice that follows can help you say what you need, the way you intend it, while hopefully avoiding conflict or aggravation. In a time of isolation and increased online interaction, face-to-face discussion has never felt more important.

Talking to Strangers

How to...Calm a Person Who Seems Stressed

by Alice Boyes, Ph.D.

You can never be sure what someone else is going through, and it’s not wise to stick your beak into every conflictual situation you come across. However, in some situations, you can use yourself as a tool to help others manage stressful scenarios. Here’s how.

  1. Be human. In stressful situations, people often stop seeing the humanity in those around them and lose sight of the fact that we’re all people having a shared experience. Any type of human connection could help soothe frayed feelings. When people express vulnerability, it tends to make other people’s caring instinct kick in.
  2. Tell people they're doing a good job in a trying situation. A little bit of kindness can go a long way. A mother struggling with a crying child may feel as if other people are staring at her and judging her negatively. Why not say, “You’re doing a good job”? It might help her realize that some people are empathizing with her, too.
  3. Meet people’s physical needs. When struggling with a stressful situation, it’s much worse if you are hot, cold, or thirsty. Try to meet these needs for people if you can. Even offering someone a stick of gum can help: The chewing sensation can be comforting.
  4. Controlled anger can be functional. Occasionally other people feel so out of control they need someone else to create a boundary to help them contain their feelings; a little sternness can help give a person the message to back off. Sometimes, expressing a degree of anger when taking control of a situation can help others contain their emotions.
  5. Treat it as an art. Defusing strong emotions requires you to read the people involved. Try making a small overture and see what kind of reception you get. Use your body language and your tone, as much as your words, to communicate your intentions.

Alice Boyes, Ph.D., is the author of The Anxiety Toolkit.

Salini Perera, used with permission.
Salini Perera, used with permission.

How to...Get Support From a Stranger

by Jen Kim

We engage with strangers online for myriad reasons. Whether you're asking for cash to support a cause or a candidate or fishing for follows and retweets, many virtual interactions are surface level or self-serving. But if this is a sign that being impersonal has become endemic, then seeking comfort from strangers should be unusual in the extreme. Right?

Not necessarily, according to a study by researchers at the University of Würzburg in Germany. They found that in a stressful or scary situation, the company of anyone, including people you don’t know, provides a level of solace, even when they don’t actually do anything to help.

In the study, researchers measured female test subjects’ skin resistance, which changes according to anxiety levels, as the women listened to a variety of sounds that were either neutral (e.g., water splashing) or fear-inducing (e.g., human cries) while another random person was present in the room. Even though this person did not interact with the subjects in any way, the results found that “fear and the resulting physiological tension [were] reduced by the mere presence of another person.” Just knowing that another warm body was nearby was enough to provide a sense of comfort.

One interesting tidbit from the study: The more different a stranger seemed, the more a subject’s anxiety was put at ease. This likely occurred, the authors suggested, because the subject “assumed that the other person, unlike themselves, was not afraid.”

Psychological research has long found evidence of the impact strangers have on us. For the most part, these findings support the same principle: Interacting with, and even trusting, strangers might actually be good for us.

Jen Kim is the author of Love And...: Bad Boys, “The One,” and Other Fun Ways to Sabotage Your Relationship.

Salini Perera, used with permission.
Salini Perera, used with permission.

Talking to Difficult People

How to…Avoid Arguments With Difficult People

by Seth Meyers, Psy.D.

As challenging as difficult personalities can be, it is possible to interact with them in a way that does not lead to anxiety, frustration, or conflict:

Remember this. I recently read this advice: “Never argue with someone who believes their own lies.” Keeping this thought in mind could provide you with a stop sign when you find yourself frustrated by someone’s refusal to recognize reality or honor conventions of mutual respect. Such people may lie to themselves that they are never wrong and that others are always to blame; that blaming others is justified; or that they are honest and trustworthy, but others are not. This advice could help you employ positive self-talk in triggering moments.

Accept that you will never “win.” Difficult personalities tend to see other people as opponents first, and accordingly, they may see social interactions as necessarily producing a winner or a loser. They are fixated on not feeling deficient or exposed, so they must end each engagement with the sense that they have prevailed. You will never win a conflict with someone whose self-esteem hinges entirely on the outcome, so your only strategy is to avoid engaging too deeply. Think of these individuals as living in a prison of sorts: They may have relationships, but they are likely empty, without emotion or real attachment.

Your power lies in your calm. If you lose your cool, they have gotten what they want, which is to ensnare you. Difficult people have limited self-awareness about what’s really going on inside themselves emotionally, but they are often unhappy and in a negative mood, and unconsciously, they try to get those around them to feel the same way.

Try a mental distraction technique. Once you realize that a person being characteristically difficult is on the brink of getting you to join them in their negative feelings, distract yourself while they rant or rave. For example, make a mental list that allows you to detach from what they are saying or doing—perhaps upcoming family birthdays or items you need from the supermarket.

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist.

How to…Talk to a Narcissist

by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., ABPP

You might expect people high in narcissism to be motivated to keep the spotlight on themselves, but also to recognize, if only begrudgingly, that they occasionally have to give other people a turn to talk. Having some social graces would logically work to their advantage, as it could help ensure that they’re liked. A recent study from the University of Potsdam asked whether people high in narcissism are “agentic to the core.” In other words, do their external self-esteem and self-assurance penetrate to their innermost selves?

The researchers used a standard experimental approach that taps people’s unconscious associations with adjectives describing themselves. Previous studies have shown that we struggle to pair words we view as not true of ourselves with me, or those we see as true of ourselves with not me. In this study, participants saw words such as active and passive on a screen and were instructed to respond as quickly as possible to the pairing of active and me as well as to passive and not me. They were also asked to respond to the pairs active and not me and to passive and me.

The team found no outward-inward discrepancy in agency for people high in narcissism: They didn’t seem to dislike themselves “deep down inside,” and so, while they scored high in the need to see themselves as important, they had no particular inner need to see themselves as in charge. Agency was not crucial to their sense of self. When people high in narcissism have the stage, they gain pleasure from it, but in seeking it, they’re not trying to cover up feelings of inadequacy.

It would appear, then, that you don’t have to walk on eggshells when dealing with a conversation-grabber for fear of triggering an outburst of narcissistic rage. All relationships depend on give-and-take, even these. If someone continually seeks to hold on to the conversational reins, go ahead and step up to turn the monologue into a dialogue. n

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., ABPP, is a professor emerita of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

How to…Talk to Aggravating Relatives

by Abigail Brenner, M.D.

What can you do with difficult people you may not like very much, and would not have chosen to have in your life, but are forced to deal with because they’re family?

  1. Don’t try to change them. It’s tempting to try to fix someone you want to care about, and sometimes it works, but more often your efforts will not be rewarded. It’s important to temper expectations and accept that they may be unable to change, at least at this point in time.
  2. Be present and direct. A person trying to stir up conflict can easily set you off emotionally—even raising your heart rate and blood pressure. Try to avoid triggering a fight-or-flight response, which inevitably leads to becoming defensive. Be direct and assertive when you express yourself, and if the discussion approaches the point of no return—when it’s no longer about conflict resolution, but just about winning—step away.
  3. Encourage the person to express themselves. Showing respect can go a long way, so let them fully state their point of view, as unpleasant as it may be, without interruption. Why do they feel judged or criticized? What do they think people misunderstand? What do they want from you? Remain as neutral as possible, listening rather than engaging, and you may allow them to feel as if they've had a fair opportunity to say what’s on their mind.
  4. Watch for trigger topics. Be conscious of which topics represent points of disagreement and disharmony. When these delicate subjects are brought up, be prepared to address them in a direct, non-confrontational way, and to deflect conflict if the atmosphere becomes heated.
  5. Put your own well-being first. You can’t twist yourself into an emotional knot just to make someone else happy, or to keep the peace. Visualize your boundaries and protect the territory between you and someone else. No one is entitled to occupy your space unless you invite them in.

Abigail Brenner, M.D., is a psychiatrist and the author of Transitions, SHIFT, and Life Matters .

How to…Talk to Someone With Different Political Views

by Jason Whiting, Ph.D.

Research on motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and other illogical leaps of the human brain show that we are simply not equipped to convince each other through debate. As emotional and social creatures, we form opinions based on our feelings and seek communion with others who feel the same way. This helps us hold onto our views and swat away threats to them. Research finds that when people are presented information on complex topics, they agree with the points that support their existing position and dismiss those that contradict it.

The least-informed individuals tend to be the most zealous about how right they are and to gain the most pleasure from their supposed moral superiority. Heated debates only convince the already converted and further entrench the other side. This is why political arguments are generally futile: There are always fast-moving data points to cherry-pick and exaggerations and distortions aplenty.

Life may be complex, but we prefer simplicity and certainty. Politics is a clear example: The issues are loaded with ambiguity, complexity, and subjectivity, but we often boil it all down to the simple certainty: “Everything my side says is true, and you’re an idiot if you don’t agree.” Have you been on social media recently? Have you seen this classic formulation: “How can any intelligent person vote for candidate X? I’m honestly asking!” No, they’re not. They’re really asking, “What sort of moron could support that fraud?” Even my nonpartisan mention of politics here may be firing up your emotions and biases.

Voltaire said, “Doubt is uncomfortable, certainty is ridiculous.” He might have been thinking about politics, but his words also apply to relationships. Partners become certain of their opinions, even about subjective issues, because everyone likes to feel correct, in every domain. The next time you get into an argument at the dinner table, remember that aggressively pushing facts and accusations will not win anyone over. You may just end up arguing each other into deeper divides.

Jason Whiting, Ph.D., is a professor at Brigham Young University and the author of Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways We Deceive in Relationships.

Salini Perera, used with permission.
Salini Perera, used with permission.

Talking for Your Benefit

How to…Speak So You’ll Be Respected

by Amy Alkon

When we project confidence, others are likely to see us as competent, while an obvious lack of confidence has the opposite effect. Confidence is generally predictive: It reflects our estimation, based on past successes in an area, that we’ll be successful in that area in the future. Interestingly, however, our confidence, or lack of it, is not always connected to how able we actually are. Still, projecting it is deeply important in order to get respect from others. The way you convey yourself, bodily and emotionally, can suggest that people would be wise to trust you and your abilities.

There are three key elements in projecting confidence:

Self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is accepting yourself entirely, both your good points and your less good points. You decide to accept the whole of you, simply because you exist.

Self-compassion. Self-acceptance is helped along by self-compassion—being as kind to yourself as you’d be to any other person you care about.

Healthy self-assertiveness. This means speaking up and standing up for yourself, in a timely way, before you build up anger and resentment.

The popular advice to “fake it till you make it” is likely to backfire. Faking confidence requires remembering a lot of things: Stand up straight. Talk from your diaphragm. Don’t fidget. Speak with vigor. It threatens cognitive overload, in which all the stuff we’re supposed to remember overwhelms us, and we end up worse off than if we hadn’t tried.

Instead, try impersonating your way to a new you. A role-playing approach developed by George A. Kelly in 1955 involves creating a character sketch of a person you want to act as—someone with a trait you aspire to, like confidence—and then rehearsing acting as that character. Over time, through role-playing as this confident person, you’ll see that you aren’t chased out with a broom when you act with self-respect; in fact, people will treat you better.

Amy Alkon is the author of the "science-help" book Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence, from which this post was adapted. Her Twitter handle is @amyalkon.

How to…Talk to People Who Want to Meddle in Your Life

Meddlers, and their unsolicited advice, can make your life difficult. To understand what’s behind this annoying behavior and how to respond, consider the results of a recent study on gossip from the University of Erlangen-Nurnberg in Germany. This research can help put us in the mind of the meddler, because, like gossip, meddling invades our boundaries and intrudes into our or others’ business.

The study focused on negative gossip, which advances the speaker’s goals and/or undermines another person in the pursuit of social relationships, just as meddlers may intrude on our space to assert their own expertise and raise their social status. Gossips and meddlers may see their behavior as justified because they believe they know more than you; therefore, they don’t think it’s out of place to insert themselves into your life. Further, they may believe that their behavior will bring the two of you closer together, while you may see it as a wedge that will drive you apart.

If you conclude that a meddler believes you’re incapable of handling your own problems, their actions present both an identity threat, meaning you would think negatively about yourself if you believed their criticism to be true, and a reputation threat, meaning that if their assumptions about you were true, you would believe that others would respect you less.

The researchers suggested three ways to react to such threats:

Recognize that there are actors and observers in any situation. From your perspective, the meddler may be belittling you, but may also sincerely believe they are helping you out.

Examine whether you’re more worried about your identity or your reputation. Are you more concerned about your identity as a competent adult being demeaned or about how you are seen by others?

Examine the basis for the meddling. It’s easy to become defensive when someone gives you unsolicited advice. Before deciding that your annoyance is justified, though, consider whether there may be a germ of truth to the words. n

— Susan Krauss Whitbourne

How to…Talk to People You Want Something From

You’ve probably received many “cold calls” in which a sales representative tries to get you to consider their company’s products or services. Rather than try to get you to commit on the spot, this person may say they just want to set up an appointment to discuss the product in more detail. It’s an approach backed by new research from York St. John University’s School of Education, Language, and Psychology in the U.K., which focused on the words used to frame persuasive messages.

The team analyzed 150 actual cold calls and found that the first step in turning a pitch into a meeting was to frame that meeting as a “joint project” in which the seller and buyer are partners. In one sample, a seller began with, “I really wanted to tee up a time for one of my experts to kind of pop down and see how we can help...” The rep didn’t ask, “Can I?” which would give the potential client a simple opportunity to refuse. Instead, they presupposed that both parties agreed to meet and asked the prospect to agree only to a time. Crucially, it didn’t yet seem as if the agent was trying to sell the service.

In the words of the research team, keeping a conversation in this “joint” context minimizes the risk of a negative outcome by “restricting prospects’ opportunities to take a stance towards the meeting.” One doesn’t try to change behavior, but instead to manage the recipient so that “a disaligning response becomes difficult to deliver.”

The persuasive approach of creating an illusion of agreement applies not just to business but to any area in which you’re trying to get the people in your life to do something differently. If you’re considering a home-improvement project, for example, instead of asking your partner, “Do you think we should…?” you could ask, “When would you like to take a look at this company’s website with me?” n

— Susan Krauss Whitbourne

Salini Perera, used with permission.
Salini Perera, used with permission.

Talking When It's Not Easy

How to…Have a Difficult Conversation

by Dan Mager, MSW

Talking with someone about challenging or difficult topics requires preparation—for example, mutually agreeing on a time and a place. But don’t put a talk off for so long that you end up collecting grievances and resentment for days or weeks, and then dump them on the other person all at once. When you do meet, these tips could help:

As much as possible, stay at about the same eye level . It’s generally not helpful for one person to be physically above or below the other.

Speak in as calm a tone as possible . This maximizes the chances that others will hear the content of your message, rather than fixate on your emotions.

Avoid finger-pointing . Blaming, or literally pointing fingers, can make the other person feel lectured or put down.

Avoid yelling, cursing, name-calling, put-downs, or threats . These will likely cause the other person to leave, shut down, or counterattack.

Be as clear as possible about your concerns and the things you’d like to change . Use specific examples, and avoid unhelpful words like always, never, everything, and nothing. They overgeneralize and are fundamentally inaccurate.

Do not interrupt . When the other person is speaking, consciously listen to what he or she has to say with the intent of hearing it. If you’re thinking about what you’re going to say in response, you’re not listening.

Approach the conversation with openness and an interest in problem solving, not just in being right . If we need to be right, it means the other person has to be wrong. This makes mutual understanding much less likely.

Keep to the topic at hand . Bringing up other topics or past events interferes with healthy communication.

Do not walk away without the other person’s agreement. But allow for time-outs. Time-outs give people the opportunity and the space to calm down and compose themselves, making it possible to continue.

Take responsibility for feeling the way you do. Use “I” statements—as in, “I feel... .” And rather than saying, “You make me so mad,” focus on the other person’s actual behaviors.

Drop your assumptions. People grow and change. Even if you’ve known someone for years, you don’t necessarily know what that person is feeling or thinking.

Dan Mager, MSW, is the executive director of the Vance Johnson Recovery Center and the author of Some Assembly Required .

How to…Get Support if You’re an Introvert

by Sophia Dembling

Staking out solitude is one of an introvert’s most important self-care jobs. But that’s in the good times when life is predictable and our needs are run-of-the-mill.

But life doesn’t always go swimmingly, and at those times, you might find your nature tested.

When I faced a daunting health challenge that isolated me, I worried that navigating an abundance of loving concern from other people would overwhelm me. But I absolutely did need people to lean on, sympathetic ears to vent to, and shoulders to cry on (although I am highly discriminating about who gets to see me cry), along with concrete help. This stuff is difficult to ask for, and so I am nothing but grateful to people who make it easier to do. Even so, I’m still an introvert. But I realized ...

  • ...it’s OK to ask for the support I need. Proud self-sufficiency is fine until it interferes with our own well-being. Rather than waiting for people to offer, I learned to reach out and say, “Hey, I would love your company today,” or “Can you help me with something?” Believe it or not, people like that kind of thing. They are often flattered.
  • …I can control the conversation. Answering every phone call and message right away is not necessary. If other people are offended, so be it. People who truly love me understand.
  • …it’s OK to whine. I try to do it sparingly, and to temper it with humor, but I can’t be stoic all the time. It’s exhausting and feels false.
  • …support isn’t always profound. Sometimes it’s simply hanging out with nice people when I just want to be regular and not think about the things that worry me. When life is scary, a light lunch with a few laughs can be refreshing.
  • …not everybody knows what to say or how to say it, and sometimes people say dumb or hurtful things. But actually, these are often funny in their cluelessness, and a sense of humor eases the sting.
  • …I can accept kindness while maintaining boundaries. I wrote a private blog to keep people updated on my progress, which was only as revealing as I let it be. I had no obligation to tell most people any more than that.
  • …the best way to show appreciation to the people who really show up for me is to do my best to continue showing up for them. I try to listen and pay attention, explicitly express my appreciation, and not take without giving back. Besides, it feels good to take the focus off myself.

Sophia Dembling is the author of The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World.

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