Difficult People

by Suzanne Neville


Nature gave man two ears, but only one tongue, which is a gentle hint that he should listen more than he talks.


Listening is a key skill when handling difficult people or situations.

Unfortunately, listening is often done in a half-committed fashion, with the listener thinking about or rehearsing a response rather than paying attention to the speaker. Little real communication takes place in this sort of listening climate.

Certainly, listening is not easy, for our natural impulse is to talk, especially when we feel threatened by what is being said to us (for example, when we are being criticised). Perhaps it is small wonder that good listening is generally one of the weakest aspects of oral communication.

Key points
  • Effective listening enables the receiver to absorb the precise idea communicated by the sender with minimum of distortion.
  • Hearing is with the ears, but listening is with the mind. It is not merely a simple, passive exposure to sound.

Key listening skills

There are five main areas in the process of active listening:

1. Observing

If you pay careful, non-evaluative attention and maintain eye contact while listening, this automatically helps the speaker to express what he or she wishes to say. Observation skills tune the listener into the speaker’s words and the emotions which accompany them, which are often revealed by facial expressions, gestures and body movements.

2. Reflecting data

This process is like holding a mirror in front of the speaker, reflecting back phrases as you hear them. This increases clarity and lets the speaker know that you are hearing accurately.

3. Summarising

When you feel you are grasping the ideas, thoughts and so on from the speaker, summarising helps you both to review what’s been said and to check for clarity and mutual understanding of the message.

4. Reflecting feelings

As you become familiar with the speaker’s emotions, you can reflect these back to test your perceptions, as well as to give information and feedback to the speaker about his/her feelings.

5. Interpreting

Sometimes it is appropriate to interpret what the speaker is saying and both parties may find this helpful.

See also the topics on Listening Skills and Body Language.