I was on a committee with two others recently and had some information that would have helped them to save some time. They were telling me about the stress involved in having to go through a particular process, again, with their local council.  I told them that I had been through that process very recently and it had changed considerably for the better.

One would have thought that it would have been simple for me to get this information across to them. I could not even get to first base – the bit where they listen. Both of them proceeded to tell me how awful the system is and how they were not looking forward to having to apply again.  Any information I tried to give them to say that the system had changed didn’t seem to gain any traction.

It got me thinking about what was blocking my committee colleagues from hearing my message of hope and helpfulness.  Some factors came to mind.

Scepticism: Maybe they were told something in the past that they found out not to be true. We live in a world where advertising messages are everywhere. To cope with those constant messages we have to learn to be sceptical.

Our frame of reference: We all have information and past experiences which shape our frame of reference.  Think of it as our own inbuilt Google search engine. When we hear new information we search our brain for information we can compare that new information to. It can be a struggle when new information does not fit with what we already know and then we can embark on a battle with the person providing it.

Being right: We all like being right!  The more emotional we are the more right we tend to feel. We must all have had the experience of arguing with a family member and suddenly realising we are wrong. Do we say ‘darling, I am wrong?’   Like heck we do. We just change the goal posts by attacking something else – ‘what about when YOU left the top off the toothpaste?’

So what do we do when we are trying to provide a customer with information they are resistant to?

Firstly, stop digging! Endlessly saying the same thing to the customer rarely works. Frequently, before running some conflict management training in organisations we are asked to spend some time observing staff in their role. We often see staff attempting to get customers to agree or accept all points of their argument and this is stressful for both sides.  We can often reach a satisfactory outcome (e.g. get them to take action) without the customer needing to accept all of our arguments.

Secondly, attempt to open up the conversation, so you understand why they are resistant to your message. For example, use questions such as ‘have you experienced something similar in the past?’, ‘how did that affect you?’, ‘when did this happen?’ etc.   By understanding the customer’s past experiences and frame of reference you are in a better position to pitch your information and as you have listened well, the customer will be more receptive to hearing it.

Finally, back off and relax. People often take time to process information in real time when their adrenaline is flowing.  Afterwards we can all process such information. My committee colleagues may well have absorbed my advice (afterwards) and now maybe they are helping others.  I’ll hold on to that thought!