How to Communicate Effectively with a Strong Personality


Doctor Neha: Welcome to Talk Rx with Doctor Neha. Today I have special guest, Tom, who is willing to ask his question live. This is like taking you behind the scenes in a coaching call, where you get to get a sneak peek because he’s willing to be such a brave soul. Let’s see what he’s got today. Hey, Tom, welcome.

Tom: Thank you. This is a great opportunity for me to try to come up with a solution or more understanding on a difficult situation that I face. I have my own construction business. I deal with a lot of different clients.

Some are easy; everything goes smoothly. Then the old 90/10 rule—90% of them are 10% of the work.

Doctor Neha: Ten percent of the clients are really ninety percent of the work?

Tom: Exactly. I have this one client that I’m going to see next week, but it’s difficult to make the phone call and say, “Hey, Jim, I need to talk to you about some work that is upcoming on your long project.” He’s like, “Oh, this is probably going to be about money.” I say, “Yes, it is.” It takes me a while to say, yeah, that I have to do this.

When I arrive, it’s pleasant. We shake hands. We sit down. I start to talk to him about the upcoming part of the project for which there weren’t clear plans. He says, “Are we going to go over this ground again?” He’s kind of coming at me. I explain the situation like I have in the past. He responds, “Yeah, I know we have to get through this, but I just don’t think you’re being fair with me. You’re just trying to charge me way too much money for … ”

I say, “Well, this is a time plus materials contract, and I want to set expectations on how much time I think it’s going to take and what the materials are going to be.”

He turns to me and says, “Well, at the end of this, it’s going to cost me way more money than I want to spend.”

I say, “Well, maybe we can come about it in a different way and then look at alternatives.”

He’s like, “This is just so much more difficult than I ever imagined it was going to be. I just can’t wait for this project to be done. Why don’t you just figure it out and come back to me?” It’s hard to get closure with him. Then it usually turns into, “Oh, well, while you’re here, I have three or four things that even though you didn’t do work in these rooms, [would you look at?] While we were working on the house in other areas, a piece of tile fell off the wall. That kitchen cabinet must’ve gotten scratched because I don’t remember it before.”

I try to operate with a sense of being fair and talk about things ahead of time.But some people feel they just operate on a different principle. I don’t understand what’s going on with them and how I might make my job be a little bit less uncomfortable so that I don’t avoid it and then it builds up.

Doctor Neha: Wow. I bet this is a common scenario even when it’s not in construction, because what you’re saying is you value is fairness. You also are saying you value person-to-person connection and having that conversation to set expectations, even when it’s tough, right? You said you’re the owner of the business. How long have you had your business?

Tom: Almost 40 years.

Doctor Neha: You’re pretty seasoned at this then?

Tom: I am.

Doctor Neha: This one’s really throwing you for a loop. Whenever it happens, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that it gives you an opportunity to look at what actually needs to be healed inside you. The bad news is that it might be a little uncomfortable in the process. What is happening is that there is a part of you that really wants everybody to like you?

Tom: Parts, yeah.

Doctor Neha: You want to be fair; you want to make sure you didn’t do anything wrong.

Tom: Don’t we all?

Doctor Neha: Well, it’s interesting you say that. It doesn’t sound like your client does as much. He probably wants people to like him, but he also stands up for himself. He says, “Hey, what’s going on here? Is this about money?” I think all of us have asense of wanting to belong, but depending on people’s upbringing, experiences, siblings and culture, how they show up sometimes doesn’t always feel like they care [whether other people like them].

When somebody feels threatened or like they might be getting taken advantage of, people handle that different ways. Yours way is to figure out how do I turn myself into a pretzel to make sure that I am a gracious business owner who takes care of my clients and does the best job I know how, right?

Tom: Yes, right.

Doctor Neha: Other people, when they come up against [a situation like that] get bigger. Their tone changes; their words change—almost abrupt or harsh?

Tom: Does he feel that I’m trying to take advantage of a situation?

Doctor Neha: Well, we don’t know because we’d have to ask him directly.

Tom: Yeah.

Doctor Neha: I wouldn’t know [how he feels] but usually people behave in an abrupt or harsh way when they’re protecting something tender. When a client or someone in your life comes across pretty harsh, a lot of times that response has protected them. They get to get away from that threat by getting bigger, but it’s not usually somebody who feels confident and grounded who shows up in that kind of a “big” way. You see what I mean?

Tom: Yeah.

Doctor Neha: It’s like a bully. The bully looks like he’s really threatening and terrifying and terrible, but really underneath it is some experience, some worry, some self-protection that’s unresolved. It may have nothing to do with you. Your work in this is to notice what happens to you when you show up in the face of anger or strong emotion. Do you shut down or try to make it about you? Is that kind of where you go? What did I do wrong? How could I do it better?

Tom: It used to be, until I read one of the chapters of your book. I tried it.

Doctor Neha: Well, that is so lovely Tom. What Tom is talking about is my book Talk Rx.

It sounds like you got some really good information.

Tom: Well, I said to him, “When you talk like that to me, usually I’ve always valued myself as a good communicator. I’ve always imagined that if we have a conversation back and forth, that we’ll arrive at a point where we’re both sort of comfortable or we’ll look at each other and say, ‘Okay, well that seems fair,’ but when you come at me this way, I feel like you’re coming at me. I start to stutter. I start to notice that my breathing is changing. I start to not be able to think clearly.”

He’s like, “Is that what I make you feel like?”

Doctor Neha: Brilliant.

Tom: I still never got a resolution.I need to learn more.

Doctor Neha: Okay. I like what you did because first of all, you got the courage to have the conversation directly with him. When you speak to him, make sure you focus on your experience. When you speak of him, you only speak of what you’re observing. It would sound like this: Instead of saying, “When you come at me like that,” what you’d say is, not you, you go to I. It would be like, “I hear your tone change and the volume of your voice rise.” Do you see how those are very objective and not about pointing fingers at him? It’s a difference of saying you, you, you, you versus saying, “When I hear a change in tone or when I hear the words ‘Is this about money?’ and then silence, that’s when my breathing changes and … ” You’re talking about yourself and your experience, which makes it much less threatening for the other person. You got that part. Just focus it on you, not on them, okay?

Then you want to get really clear. You did great. What did you say after that? You said, “There’s this way that my thinking isn’t clear and I shut down.” Like something around those lines?

Tom: Yeah.

Doctor Neha: Okay. All you have to do now is breathe because the first thing is to manage yourself. You have to manage all those sensations,and then get really clear [about what you’re feeling: I’m going blank, I’m feeling guarded, I’m feeling defensive]. Now what you want to get to is what you want, okay? What I’ve already heard is that you value fairness, honesty, connection and direct conversations. You also value compromise, because what you said is, in the end we might not all get what we want, but we’ll all come to a conclusion that this was pretty fair, right?

Tom: Yes.

Doctor Neha: You value compromise, so that’s what you say. What you say is, “It’s really important to me that you feel this is fair. It’s also really important to me that I go the extra mile …. When I feel appreciated, I’m willing to go the extra mile. I notice when we have these conversations I find myself shutting down and feeling that you actually don’t appreciate the work I’m doing.” Then you turn it into a question, “Is that true?” The reason you ask is because you might be making up a story that isn’t true. He might come across that way so he doesn’t have to incur future costs, but he might actually appreciate you. We don’t know yet.

Make sense?

Tom: Yes, you bring it to the values, by saying here’s what I stand for and this is what I’m trying to do.

Doctor Neha: For us.“I want honesty and I want both of us to feel that this is fair. I value compromise. There’s a part of me that is feeling unappreciated and unclear about our relationship. Do you feel like I’m working hard for you?” You have to ask it.

Tom: That last partis the important part—take it beyond the values to what you want.

Doctor Neha: It is—what you want,what you want to know from the other person.

Tom: Ask it as a question.

Doctor Neha: Ask it as a question. Instead of saying, “I can’t stand it Tom, when you don’t value me.” Now I’ve just made a statement that you may or may not believe in but you may get triggered enough that you just shut down. There’s the end of the conversation. Curiosity is a bridge.

Tom: Yeah.

Doctor Neha: In that moment when you’re sure that your past experience tells you this is what’s true, get curious not furious.

Tom: It’s a whole new world out there at 63 years old.

Doctor Neha: I love it. You know what, Tom? If we’re not learning we might as well not be here, right?

Tom: Well, thank you, because now when I have difficult situations that come up in life, I feel like I’m going to bridge those and end up in a better place rather than carrying that baggage and keeping it all internal.

Doctor Neha: I love it. Thank you so much.

Tom: Thank you very much.

Doctor Neha: For those of you who know that sometimes you shut down in the face of strong emotion or when somebody else starts to appear like a bully or raise their voice or swear. Get really clear around what those signals are. Get clear about what’s happening for you and what you want, because at the bottom of it you both probably value some similar qualities. Make sure you stay curious. Get curious, not furious.

If you’d like to comment below and tell me how you’ve experienced a bully or strong personality in your life, I’d be happy to answer your questions. Also drop me a tweet at #AskDoctorNeha.

Awareness Prescription

  1. Notice your body’s sensations, and pause. Take a few soft, deep belly breaths.
  2. Pay attention to your thoughts and emotions.
  3. State the objective data you’ve observed (e.g., tone of voice).
  4. Refer to your own experience rather than blaming the other person.
  5. Get curious, not furious.

From feeling bullied to being brave,