Communicating effectively in difficult situations

Most of us have come in contact with a person who is irrational, irritable, upset, angry, suspicious… just really awkward to deal with. This may be a regular occurrence with some people, or it could be a one time experience with someone you don’t really know. Regardless, there is a way to manage the situation, keep it from boiling over, and at the same time effectively get your point across and achieve a reasonable outcome.

So how do you communicate with someone who simply doesn’t want to listen to what you have to say? Well, there are options. The first option is to ask yourself if you really need to get through to this person. If the answer is no, then perhaps you just remove yourself from the person and leave the situation. Life is too short…

BUT, if it is important that you remain engaged, then you may employ the “SET” system. SET – an acronym for “Support Empathy Truth” – was first developed by mental exhibit volatile and unpredictable behaviors. If SET can work for these patients; it can work for just about anybody.

So here is how SET works

The first stage of the SET system is Support. In this stage we make a statement to the person showing our personal concern for the situation or behavior.

For example, let’s say you are in an argument with your significant other. He or she is very upset about a business trip you have to take. It’s clear that this is about to turn into a full blown argument. Using the SET method, you may start by making a statement such as:

“I am sincerely concerned for how you are feeling about this.”

The “S” statement is focused on your feelings, not the other person’s.

After making the S statement move to the Empathy stage. During this stage you are trying to acknowledge the feelings of the other person. Do not confuse this with sympathizing. So instead of conveying that you feel sorry for the other person, you are simply attempting to acknowledge their point of view. You may make a statement such as:

“I can see you are very upset, and it seems that you feel like I am placing my job over you.”

Be certain that you deliver the statement in a caring, but neutral manner. Also, avoid inserting your own feelings into the statement. This statement is about the way the other person is feeling or behaving. If you say something like “I understand how you feel…” or “I know how you feel…” you may further inflame the conversation.

Finally, you conclude the method with the “T” stage. During this stage you are making a statement of fact about the situation, or a Truth statement. The point of the Truth statement is not to impose your will or “win” the argument, but to demonstrate that the other person’s feelings are his own, and that he is responsible solely responsible for his behaviors.

The Truth statement is focused on the problem and its resolution, not on either your or the other person’s feelings. There are many different possibilities, but any response must be focused entirely on the situation, should not be emotionally charged, and should be delivered in a non-aggressive, genuine, matter-of-fact manner.

In this instance, an appropriate Truth statement in the above situation may be:

“I must go on this trip because it’s important for our family that I do well in this job. If I do not go on this trip I may get fired, and in this economy may not find another job for some time. But here is what I can do. After this trip I will tell my boss that I cannot travel for another two or three months, and then we can take a week’s vacation together.”

In this series of statements you are stating the situation and the consequences of not going on the trip, and offering a solution to cut back on travel and focus on the relationship in the future.

Why use SET?

While the SET system has proven useful in the most intense situations, it is not a magic bullet that will resolve all conflict. Indeed, SET is not necessarily intended to resolve conflict, as much as it is to maintain reasonable boundaries between you and the person you are dealing with.

Maintaining boundaries is important in intense situations for many reasons. The most immediate in any argument is to control the situation and not let it get further out of control. It may seem counter-intuitive, but when we maintain rational boundaries with irrate people we are better able to contain and mitigate their anger. By using the SET system and delivering the messages in a rational, non-aggressive and non-confrontational manner we should be able to manage most situations.

Another important reason to maintain boundaries with difficult or irrational people is to establish the nature of the relationship. People who can establish and maintain firm and reasonable boundaries build trust and respect with others. Perhaps by effectively using the SET system you may avoid future conflict with the same individual.

What if it doesn’t work?

If you are in a situation where the SET system does not seem to be defusing the situation, it is still important that you maintain the message, and be prepared to walk away and come back another time.

In normal situations you may simply be able to repeat the SET message, perhaps using different language, until the other party sees that you are being rational and want to work the situation out. When doing this do not change the message as it may confuse the other person. Simply repeat the same message until the other person is in a position to have a rational conversation.

If after numerous attempts it does not appear the other person will be able to accept the message or have a rational conversation it may be best to suggest talking about the situation again at a later time when you are both more calm. When making this statement it is important that you do not suggest blame for not being able to resolve or discuss the situation.

One way to do this is to repeat the “S” and “E” messages again, but change the “T” message to something like:

“It doesn’t seem we can fix this right now. I think we should leave it for now, and talk about it later after we’ve had more time to think about it.”

You may encounter resistance, but if you remain calmly assertive you should be able to remove yourself from the situation until you can have a rational conversation.

Some final (but important) points

When dealing with angry, difficult or irrational people it is very important to deliver a consistent message. The Truth statement, for instance, must actually be true. So in the example above, you can expect that the spouse will indeed be expected to carry out his promise of reducing travel and taking that vacation.

Likewise, if you make a Truth statement stating consequences for a behavior, you must be prepared to carry those consequences out.

Delivery is key. There is no method I know of that can be effective in resolving conflict or negotiating a settlement if both parties are thinking emotionally. Since you have no control over the other person’s emotions it is up to you to maintain an engaged but rational state even when dealing with someone who is clearly angry or otherwise irrational. You must deliver your SET statements in a caring but matter of fact manner if the system is to work, and you must keep these statement consistent throughout the ordeal.

I have used the SET system with patients who have been in emotional or psychological crisis. I have also used the same system with business clients in negotiations, and even with my wife (don’t tell her!). SET is not the only system available for these situations, but it is relatively easy to learn, and it works.

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