I’m asked how to handle difficult behaviour all the time. Of course, there is no simple answer, because every meeting of two personalities is a unique occasion, with its own context and often complicated baggage.
Although there is no magic wand, there are many strategies and techniques you can add to your toolkit that will help in many situations. They tend to be widely known by those in helping professions such as counselling and guidance, but are less familiar to everyone else.
Like all tools, they work better in competent hands, so if you are confident in your communication skills and level of self awareness – i.e. you understand the impact you have on others – then they are worth exploring. Today I’m going to tell you about one of my favourites – immediacy.
Many situations boil down to two people discussing a task or issue, with one (or possibly both) of them feeling that the other person is being problematic in some way. Does this sound familiar? We labour on, trying to keep on topic because we think it’s the right thing to do, with progress being slow, non existent, or even worse, ground previously gained is lost.
What is immediacy?
Immediacy means that you stop trying to discuss the task/issue at hand, and instead address what is going on between the two of you. At first you may feel uncomfortable going off topic, but what is the point of continuing if you’re not getting anywhere? It can also feel a bit daunting venturing into unchartered waters that could be about personal stuff, but you can’t address an issue if you don’t know what it is.
Firstly, you’ll need to think carefully about exactly what the behaviour is that you are finding a challenge. If you can’t articulate it, you won’t be able to convey it accurately. You’ll need to choose your words and your tone carefully so that you do not come over as antagonistic or aggressive. Immediacy works because it addresses and makes transparent behaviours that we often choose to ignore – it brings differences out into the open. As this may not be what the other person is expecting, take your time too, so that they are able to absorb what you are saying.
You need to be prepared to hear that the other person might well be finding something about you difficult. We always want the other person to change…and they are probably thinking the same!
Here’s what you DON’T say:
“You’re not being very helpful” “What’s the matter with you?” “You need to pull your socks up”….etc. Other than being confrontational, which no one likes (except maybe boxers), they are non specific and vague. The other person won’t know what behaviour you are referring to – all they will know is that it feels like an attack – and they will respond accordingly.
Here’s what you might say:
Actually, before you say anything, check your mindset. Focus on being two colleagues working together to solve a problem rather than a ‘you against me’ mentality, which won’t get you any constructive outcomes.
Of course, you need to choose your own words. I might open with “Can we talk about how we are working together?” or mention specific examples, such as “You’re looking at the floor a lot today. Is there a reason? Would you rather we didn’t discuss this today?” Stating what you have noticed and what you think it means is a good way of moving the conversation from the agenda to what is going on between you.
Three stage perception checking
This is a remarkably effective technique that I often include in training sessions. It is best used to nip unwanted behaviour in the bud, but it can also be used for immediacy to clarify the state you think the other person is in.
The stages are:
- Identify the behaviour
- Say what it means to you
- Ask for confirmation
For example, you might say:
- You’ve been drumming your fingers constantly since you arrived
- I take it that means you are in a hurry to be somewhere else
- Am I right?
- I see that your hands are shaking
- Often that is a sign of stress
- Are you worried about talking to me today?
(Examples from the One to One Toolkit by Cooper and Reynolds)
So next time you find yourself struggling in a conversation, ask yourself if its about the topic, or about the relationship between you and the other person. If it’s the latter – try using immediacy.
Do leave a comment if you try this out. As ever, if I can help in any way, do let me know.