Communication 9: Very Opinionated People

Date: 11/8/2005

Recently in a doctor's waiting room a stranger sitting next to me started telling me his opinion on a certain controversial topic.  Every time I tried to express my opinion he abruptly cut me off.   This incident got me thinking:  How do you communicate with people who hurl their ideas at you and do not allow you to respond?

I posed this question to NLP trainers Steve Andreas and Shelle Rose Charvet. Their thoughts on the matter stimulated my own thinking.

It seems to me that first of all you will want to decide what your outcome is.  While having an outcome is important in all communication, it is very important  with VOPs because it will make a big difference how you deal with them.  Examples of outcomes would include:

---I want to peacefully terminate this conversation.

---I just want the VOP to realize that I look at this issue differently than he does.

---I want to get into a full-fledged debate with this VOP and try to totally disprove his view.

As far as how to speak with them Shelle Rose Charvet advises: "Rapport is the Key.  Match his non-verbals.  Play back his key word in the same delivery method, interjecting if necessary to do so.  Repeat til he hears you.  Repeat once more.  Shift your position so that he follows you.  Use same voice tone, speed, etc. and clear your throat and say that you don't suppose he'll want to hear what you think."

Steve Andreas suggests that it "is indeed difficult situation...they have already formulated their opinions a long time ago and they are fixed...It's a bit like arguing with a paranoid; you need to pace a lot, and really work within their very small world." 

Here are examples of how you might implement Steve Andreas's suggestion about "pacing them a lot"  (for more information see my article on Disagreeing without Arguing).  When there is a pause in the conversation you might say something like the following...

If all you want to do is peacefully terminate the conversation:

---"Very, very interesting and you have obviously spent a lot of time thinking about this.   I"m not sure that I agree with everything you have said, but I am glad that we have spoken because you have definitely given me a desire to think some more about this subject."

---Or, as you subtly nod your head say "I know people who think like you do."

If you want the VOP to realize that you disagree with him you might say something like this:

---"Fascinating!  Even though I do not agree with your position I see that you have spent a lot of time thinking about this and I am glad that I had the opportunity to hear your views.  It is so important to hear different people's opinions."

---Or, with a sympathetic facial expression and voice tone say "I wish I could agree with you."

If your desire is to debate the VOP than something like this would be appropriate:

---Very, very interesting and I see you have spent a lot of time thinking about this. I am sure that there are many people who see it your way.  I have to tell you that I have also spent much time thinking about this topic and I disagree with your position."  (You can then elaborate on why.)

What you generally would not want to do (although sometimes it is very tempting) is to throw in a remark such as: 

---"I find your position to be totally ludicrous, absolutely ridiculous."  

A remark like that might make a new enemy for you and there could be a reaction from your VOP that you were totally unprepared for.

Another pattern you could use would be to treat their remarks as a "Lost Performative", a statement that the speaker assumes is obviously true to everyone.  When there is a pause in the conversation pace as above and lead with:

---"I would just like to ask you one would you know if you were wrong?"

---or "I would just like to ask one question...are there people who see this issue differently than you do?"

Other language patterns that would be useful with VOPs include the Sleight of Mouth patterns and Universal Quantifiers (since they tend to speak in absolutes).

Give it a Try! As I recall times that I spoke to VOPs it seems to me that the biggest challenge is maintaining self control.  It  can be  exasperating to try to discuss something with them. Nevertheless, it is crucial not to let yourself be pulled in emotionally. As soon as you realize that you are talking to a VOP take a deep breath, put a smile on your face, and keep reminding yourself to remain calm, dissociated, and objective. 

Please send me your personal experiences relating to this article.