Many times when I speak at conferences, individuals will find me after a session and request coaching with a difficult situation. These encounters always provide wonderful opportunities for learning and expanding my knowledge of the human condition.
A couple of years ago, a young woman came to me and asked for some assistance in mending her relationship with her sister. She told me how her sister refused to engage with her or talk in any way. I asked if I could ask her some personal questions to help both of us understand the situation. She agreed. I told her to place herself in her sister’s shoes and to answer my questions with the first thought that came into her mind. This is a common technique for uncovering what a person’s subconscious knows about a situation.
She consented, so I asked her, “Why won’t you engage with your sister?” She responded, “Because I am afraid.” To which I asked, “Why are you afraid?” Again the young woman responded, “I am afraid of being wrong.” So I asked, “Why are you afraid of being wrong?” The young woman answering for her sister blurted out with a surge of emotion, “Because I am always wrong, and I desperately need to be right!” We spent a number of minutes exploring their lives together and how they had treated each other growing up that would support her conclusions about her sister’s lack of engagement. Then, we were able to identify a number of things that she could do to increase the engagement between her and her sister.
I have long remembered this experience and thought about why some folks refuse to engage or speak up when they have the opportunity. Sometimes I believe, like the sister in the story, we don’t speak up for fear of being wrong. The flip side to that is that being silent is a way of being right. After all, if I keep my thoughts to myself then no one can ever challenge my thinking or force me to consider other perspectives. This is a pretty powerful strategy for being right and avoiding being wrong. Such a strategy is really about maintaining control of the situation, the potential outcome, or the perception of one’s self. However, I have found that being in control, particularly of conversations is an illusion. The only thing we come close to controlling is ourselves, and even that is often in question.
When dealing with those who won’t engage, here are some ideas that you might consider.
1. Emphasize the importance of the relationship. Sometimes people believe that you don’t care about them or what they have to offer. Being able to affirm that your relationship with them is important to you is a good place to start. You might say something as simple as, “I would really like to improve our relationship. Would you be willing to talk about it?” If you want things to improve, you have to make the effort. If you are not willing to take the first step, you may wait a long time before anything improves.
2. Apologize. If you know that you have done something that offended the person, whether you intended ill or not, apologize for your behavior or your actions. Obviously, you must be sincere or they will know that you really don’t mean what you say. After expressing regret, simply ask them directly, “Will you forgive me?” Then no matter how awkward the silence, let them respond. If they won’t forgive you, then accept that for now and express your desire to improve the situation when they are ready to talk about it.
3. Examine yourself. Sometimes we are unaware of our behavior and how it impacts others. You might ask yourself any of the following questions: “What might I be doing that is keeping them from engaging?” “Do I criticize them?” “Am I always offering unsolicited advice?” “Do I try to manipulate or control them?” “Do I put them down or preach to them?” The behaviors that are mentioned in these questions tend to push people away. If you can take stock of your own behavior and recognize what you might be doing, then you will be in a position to make a change.
4. Show interest in them. This has to be sincere. If you can get them to talk and answer questions, then be sure that you listen to what they are telling you. Let the focus of the conversation remain on them. Don’t tell your own experiences or offer advice unless they ask you to do so. Just listen and learn. You might be surprised at what people will tell you if you just sit and listen.
5. Offer support. I would add that you should offer support without expecting anything in return. I have found doing this strengthens my relationships with family members when I offer my assistance. Because I am frequently busy, when I ask them, “What one thing can I do for you today?” they are at first surprised, then pleased that I would care enough to ask what I can do for them.
You might need to let them gather their thoughts before they respond. Once they tell you what you can do to help them, then you have to do what you say you will do. Offering to help and then following through will go a long way to building trust in the relationship.
6. Be patient. Sometimes it takes a long time for people to feel safe and to know that they will be honored and treated with dignity and respect. Only they can decide if it is worth their effort to interact with you. You must allow them the freedom to make that decision according to their timetable. There is no forcing this, particularly with people who are naturally more introverted.
7. Be consistent. If you really want people to engage with you and improve the quality of your relationship, then you have to be consistent in the way that you treat them. Any deviation in your behavior that may put the relationship at risk will be used as evidence that you cannot be trusted or that nothing will change.
Our personal and professional relationships contribute to the quality of our lives and the success that we achieve. Recognizing which relationships you need to improve and how you contribute to the success of those relationships is a great place to start. Once people know that you really want them to engage and that you value what they have to offer, only then will they feel safe enough to share what is really going on their minds.