How to Communicate Effectively with Anyone

By Elizabeth Cobb, LCSW

We all have that one person in our life who makes it impossible to have a civil conversation: the boss that always has to be right, the mother who is constantly critical, the partner who ignores your feelings. When people put us down, yell at us, don't validate our feelings, or criticize us, our natural tendency is to fight back. And why shouldn't we? These negative, poor communicators deserve a taste of their own medicine, right?

If you want to have better relationships and get want you want, communicating "tit for tat" won't work. The consequences of arguing to defend ourselves are more hostility, less understanding, and frustration.

There is another, better way to get along with difficult people. It requires us to change the way we think about fairness in a relationship. At the core of this new style of communication is "kill them with kindness." No matter how nasty or angry someone gets, responding in a positive way can get difficult people to listen and change.

So how should you go about communicating with difficult people? Use the four techniques below!

  1. Empathize. Show the person that you heard what they said and validate them. Use thought empathy, paraphrasing what the person said but not parroting back their words verbatim; use feeling empathy, acknowledging how the other person is feeling. Empathy disarms the other person and makes them open to what you want to say.
  2. Be assertive. Use "I" statements to express what you need out of the conversation and how you are feeling. Avoid name calling and "you" statements. “You" statements will instantly make the other person feel defensive. They'll tune out of the conversation and you'll be back to square one.
  3. Inquire. Ask the other person to tell you more about what they are thinking and feeling. This is an invitation to deepen the conversation.
  4. Respect. End with a compliment to show that you respect the other person and their opinion. People often have difficulty giving a compliment because it's hard to swallow your anger when someone has treated you poorly. However, ending on a positive note is important.

Use these four techniques and you'll be on your way to communicating well with anyone - and getting what you want.

Elizabeth Cobb, LCSW is in private therapy practice in New York City. To learn how therapy can help you effectively communicate with friends, family, partners, and colleagues, visit