Psychology Today: Here To Help

WHEN TALKING MAKES THINGS WORSE! Resolving Problems When Communication Fails

We all know that the key to winning a new customer is communication...right? Conventional wisdom says you present the facts about your product or service, show how it will meet your prospect's needs, and then ask for the order.

The founder of a Boston voice mail company, Milo O'Connell, tried doing that. His client, a manager at a defense contractor, sighed, "Milo, you have an excellent messaging system. Unfortunately, I have no budget for it."

"But...but..." Milo tried several counter-arguments.

Nothing worked.

Milo walked out of her office in a daze. He could not fathom how, with such a convincing presentation, with the prospect agreeing with him that he had a great product, he had nonetheless somehow been defeated by two words, "no budget"! How did that happen? Where did he go wrong?

It's not enough to know what you want

While Milo knew that he wanted to make a sale, he neglected to consider what specific action he wanted his prospect to take. What, specifically, should she do to get the money to buy the messaging system he was selling? Milo assumed this was a trivial detail. He assumed that she would know what to do. As Milo discovered, if the other person doesn't know what to do, they may fail to do it.

So you need to do the work of figuring out specifically what you want the other person to do. The less work for them to do, the more likely they are to do it. (Of course, you don't want to alienate the other person by giving orders. But unless you know what you want them to do, you cannot intentionally approach them to do it.)

Milo thought it over and developed several options. He was approaching his prospect in April, near the end of her company's fiscal year. Could she propose an increase in next year's budget to cover a messaging system? If not, Milo had a fallback plan: since she liked his product, could she refer him to two other managers who might also be interested? If several managers pooled their budgets, perhaps they could afford the purchase together.

You might think Milo's problem was that he didn't know what he wanted. But he did know. He knew he wanted to make the sale. His problem was he didn't know what he wanted the other person to do for him. Once he knew he wanted his prospect to request an increase in next year's budget, she did so, the VP approved it, and Milo got the sale.

The moral?

Create the other person's next move.

What--specifically--should they do? Sometimes you believe you have identified what you want the other person to do for you--but in reality, you haven't. Because the action that you want them to take is far too vague.

I'll give you an example. Julia and Herb co-founded a small company together, but recently, they've begun feuding and now they're even threatening to sue each other. Julia says she won't sue, if Herb makes a "reasonable attempt to reach agreement soon."

Just a moment. "A reasonable attempt to reach agreement soon"? What does that mean?

If Herb agrees to meet but doesn't concede anything, is that "reasonable"? And what is "soon"? If Herb is busy this week but is willing to meet next week, would Julia think that was "soon" enough?

Julia admitted to me she wasn't sure. Her words were vague because her thinking was vague. Until she could distill in her own mind what she wanted Herb to do, there was little hope she could get him to do it. No wonder that whenever they got together for a meeting, nothing good would come of it.

We've all been to meetings where everyone shows up with no clear idea of what they want anyone to do. They want the other person to "do something constructive" or "make an offer." "Make an offer"? If the person makes any offer, will you be satisfied? What terms would you like to see?

Get specific. Before the meeting, consider: What precisely would the person have to do, for you to perceive there was progress? Once you crystallize your objective, you can think strategically about how to approach them.

The Selfishness Syndrome

The benefit of creating the other person's next move is clear. Yet some of us instinctively avoid doing it.


One client of mine, an attorney, explained, "I'm going to do what my side wants. I'm not going to worry about the other guys!"

It's a law of human nature: when we get under stress and emotionally consumed by a problem, we become self-centered. When we're upset at the other person, we don't feel like paying attention to them at all. We don't care about designing a move for them to make. That's the furthest thing from our mind.

We focus entirely on ourselves and on what we are going to do. The battle cry is "I'll show them!" But "showing them" makes no sense at all unless they do something for you as a result. When you're trying to influence someone, your goal is not to indulge your emotions.

It's to get results.

Adopting any posture, aloof or warm, is useful only if it helps you achieve your goal. Don't lose sight of your goal. Your goal is for them to do something.

When you're stuck in an interpersonal problem, the first question you may be tempted to ask yourself is, "What should I do?" But to influence someone, you need to ask a different question: "What do I want the other person to do?"

The next move you should make depends on the next move you want them to make.

Get realistic about what they are willing and able to do Our attempts to influence people often fail because we're asking them to do something they're not ready or able to do.

Recognizing the other person's limit is vital to developing a realistic move they can make. But there's a problem with the way we've been taught to assess someone's limit. There's a difference between what the other person can do right now and what they might ultimately do.

Focus on their immediate limit, not their "bottom line." Pur yourself in Milo's position: you have a prospect, Sally, interested in buying your company's product. How do you know how big a move you should ask Sally to make?

Many business books suggest that you push Sally to her bottom line--the most she could do for you ultimately. It's much more useful to focus on her immediate limit--the most your prospect is willing and able to do for you right now.

Ultimately, she might sign a $50,000 requisition. But now? Perhaps the most she'll do is agree to talk to a few other managers to see if they'd like to split the cost.

If you keep pushing Sally to sign a $50,000 requisition today, she may call security to escort you from the building. That's the danger of focusing on the other person's bottom line: if you ask for too much now, the person may balk and refuse to budge at all.

A common mistake is automatically to press for everything you want all at once.

Set your goal at Sally's immediate limit, not her bottom line. You should be trying to get her to do the most she is willing and able to do for you right now.

How to uncover someone's immediate limit There are three techniques you can use.

1. Examining their perceptions. The most that someone is willing to do for you depends on their views, attitudes, and beliefs about the situation. How much do they believe they should do for you at this point in time?

2. Testing by pushing. This is the most direct method to gauge how big a move you can get someone to make. You make a proposal or take a stand and see whether they budge. If they absolutely refuse, you know you've reached their immediate limit.

3. Monitoring conversational cues. These are signals that people send to indicate what they are prepared to do for you and when you are reaching their immediate limit.

Learning to read other people's communication styles is vital because a lot of conversational cues are indirect.

Take, for instance, a negotiation involving Linda, who had recently moved her publishing company to Chicago. She was negotiating with the insurance company for the movers, who had damaged her office furniture. Linda and the claims representative were haggling about how much the insurance company should pay for refinishing a desk that had been marred. Then the claims rep thought aloud: "Even if I were to agree with you about the desk, we'd still have to agree on the compensation for the antique chairs that got scratched."

Fortunately, Linda recognized this conversational cue, because it marked a strategic moment. The claims rep was hinting he might budge on the desk--if she accepted a compromise on the chairs. This is a common face-saving tactic: you hint that you might budge if they do; but if they refuse, you deny you were dropping a hint about budging; you reassert your original position and appear as strong as ever.

Linda replied, "Well, we might be able to work out something on the chairs...Let's see.."

People's attitudes and beliefs shift in the give-and-take of conversation, and often these shifts are accompanied by conversational cues. So get in the habit of watching for them.

Be realistic, not optimistic

This philosophy runs counter to America's "can-do" spirit: if they say it can't be done, we'll find a way to do it.

To make sure the move you're creating is realistic, you've got to identify the person's immediate limit.

In seminars I demonstrate this point by saying, "Pick the farthest place in the room that you'd like me to go in my next step. Anywhere at all." Inevitably someone picks a spot thirty feet across the room. I say, "Now here's the problem. I cannot go across the room in my next move. See my immediate limit?"

I stretch out my leg so everyone can see: at most I can go three feet in my next move.

"If you want me to go thirty feet across the room, don't try to make me do it in one move. Ask me to go three feet at first. Step by step, I'll be able to reach the thirty-foot mark."

What if you want them to make a big move? The solution is to...

Break the problem apart

When you subdivide a problem into manageable moves for the other person to make, an impossible goal can become realistic.

Sandra Blumenthal, who established her own Silicon Valley firm, soon found that her managers of Marketing and Engineering were engaged in a corporate version of the Cold War. To make peace, Sandra suggested that her two managers get together for a seminar on teamwork. They each balked, blaming the other guy for the friction.

"I realized that asking them to go to a teamwork seminar was too big a step," she says. "So I created a smaller move for them to make." She met privately with each manager and asked for his complaints about the other one. Sure enough, each of them recited a litany of gripes. Sandra wrote everything down. Predictably, most of the issues overlapped. For example, the Marketing manager complained that the Engineering person wasn't designing things the way he wanted; the Engineering manager complained that the Marketing director's expectations were unrealistic. Next, Sandra created a joint list of issues and invited the two managers to meet with her to refine it. They were each eager to do that, since they each wanted the other guy to change. They agreed that everything on the joint list needed to be resolved. That was another constructive move. Then Sandra set up a timetable with her two managers for working on the agenda of issues. Within two months, they had reached agreements on everything.

Sandra comments: "They didn't want me to force a workshop on them, but they did want the other manager to address their concerns and change."

You direct their anger by creating their next move Often when I tell this story to a seminar group, someone raises a hand and asks: "I don't get it. Sandra asked the managers to complain about each other each? Why did she do that? Seems to me they were complaining enough. Did she want to encourage them to complain?"

Yes, she did--because she was prepared to act on their complaints. The more they complained, the more convinced they became that the other guy had to change. And Sandra was providing the only option to get them to change. So really, she was inviting each manager to talk himself into cooperating with her.

Someone else's hand shoots up here: "But as you pointed out yourself, a lot of times when you let someone vent, it only makes things worse!" Absolutely. Sandra was inviting each manager to vent, but she had decided beforehand how to turn their energy toward a constructive goal--the creation of a joint agenda of issues that they'd resolve.

It is very risky to invite someone to vent if you don't know how to deal with their anger once they release it. Indeed, one purpose of creating the other person's next move is to direct their negative feelings toward a constructive target, or at least toward a harmless target. That's how you begin to defuse someone's anger.

Begin to defuse?

That's right: human beings, like many complex explosive devices, often cannot be defused in one move.

Don't try to solve too big a problem at once.

Why did Sandra's strategy succeed in a cease fire between these two managers? Because she broke the problem apart. She kept asking herself: "What can I get each manager to do now?" The first move was for each manager to discuss his complaints with her. The second move was for each manager to refine the joint list of issues. The third move was for each manager to agree to work on resolving those issues with her. One step at a time, each move within his immediate limit.

It's tempting in a dispute to try to come up with the brilliant answer that will settle the whole problem all at once.

That's like walking up to a stranger and saying, "Marry me." There are smaller steps required before you reach that point. Persuasion is like courtship. You've got to lead the person one step at a time. What if you don't have time to go step by step? Surprise! Proceeding incrementally is the fastest way to get what you want. The slowest way is to push for too much at once. That's when the other person gets defensive, locks up and refuses to budge. But if each move you invite them to make is easy for them, you'll make progress quickly.

Don't plan all your steps at once

Even when you know exactly where you want to lead the other person, it's best at the outset not to develop every single step that you will take. Dealing with people is not like playing chess, where you can develop an intricate plan many steps ahead. One of the worst things you can do is to develop at the outset every step you will take and then to follow that plan like a script.

Especially in a delicate situation, you need to tune in to the person's immediate limit and decide what to do in response to it. Your greatest asset is responsiveness, not rigidity. You've got to respond to the situation as it unfolds.

Dr. David Stiebel is the author of the book/audiobook When Talking Makes Things WORSE! Resolving Problems When Communication Fails (Whitehall & Nolton, 1997). He is a University of California, Berkeley negotiation expert and adviser to CEOs and government leaders.