Tips for communicating with a contrarian

Recently, I had…or, tried to have, a conversation with a contrarian: a person who says white if you say black, no matter how they really feel. It’s a power move. It’s a control move. It’s a way, they think, of keeping you off guard enough so that they feel superior in the conversation. No matter what, you will never be in agreement because that would be too scary for them.  A level playing field must be tipped in their favor, in their own minds–at all costs.

Does this sound familiar?  I’ve met three contrarians who were so overt that I had to spend time thinking about how to manage the relationship from my side. One of them I could simply dismiss. The chances of seeing the woman again were slim, unless I arranged a meeting. So, that was easy. I just never bothered to have one-to-one time with her.  The second was a person on a team that I had been brought in help learn to communicate, manage conflict and collaborate in more effective ways. That’s where the ideas that I’ll share in this blog were born.  And, the third woman is my new next door neighbor.  We’ll see how that goes as it’s brand new just now.

Interestingly enough, all three are women. That shouldn’t be a surprise as women are more covertly competitive than men on the whole.  Sorry, ladies, but that’s true. Did you know, for instance, that the term “frenemies”–those people who treat you like a friend when they see you and stab you in the back when you’re not looking–are exclusively women. Men either like, tolerate or ignore you. They simply don’t have frenemies. It would be too much trouble!
[tweetthis]”Men either like, tolerate or ignore you. They don’t have #frenemies they’re too much trouble!”[/tweetthis]

So, what do we do with contrarians?  Here’s a few tips:

  • Ask their opinion before you give yours.  Then you can find something to agree with, no matter how small.  It increases the chances of finding alignment earlier rather than later.
  • When they contradict you, simply says, “Tell me more.” This way you’ll find out what’s driving them. It’s good to remember that you cannot learn anything when you’re doing the talking!
  • When you recognize that the person is simply doing anything to one-up you, ask a question that steps outside the conversation, a process question, like: Do you think there is value in our continuing this conversation?”  This breaks the cycle and could move to a more collaborative interchange.
  • If the person indicates they see value in continuing, ask another process question rather than returning to the main issue, If we continue this conversation, then, how do you think it best to proceed to find a collaborative solution?” When you ask a contrarian a process question, they have to take some ownership of the direction of that conversation. In the workplace, it had better be going towards solution, creativity or productivity, otherwise, it’s not valuable, time- or cost-effective.
  • If none of this works, simply describe the situation as you see it: “When I say white, you say black. When I move towards your opinion, you change it. Gray is nothing we seem to be moving towards. What do you suggest we do as we are charged with solving this problem or finishing this report?” This is a way of removing the power dynamic from the conversation by focusing on the desired outcome.
  • No matter what, when dealing with a contrarian contriving for control, STICK TO FACTS ONLY.  Leave all feelings, guesses and assumptions out of the conversation!

I hope that helps.  Let me know if you have a specific question that I can help you with.  If you’re ready for relationship help but you’re not sure where to start, click here for a free half-hour consult.

Rhoberta

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7 comments

  1. Working under a contrarian -

    Hi there, these suggestions certainly make sense when you’re dealing with a peer, but they might come off as insubordinate when it’s your manager who is the contrarian. Any suggestions for dealing with a contrarian boss?

    • DrShaler -

      Great point! The first two suggestions I made are definitely the strongest way to work with a boss who is a contrarian. Let them talk. Find out what they want from you. Find out why they want it and, if necessary, what they are willing to take off your plate to get it. Contrarians, as I mentioned, are all about power and that is demonstrated by continuously trying to catch you off guard. When you ask your boss a questions couched like this, “I want to learn as much as I can about this, so, would you mind telling me more about why this is a top priority?” That gives them the power to speak, explain and expound. Good first step. Then, ask them if they would like to hear your view on the subject. If they are closed enough to say no, notice. If this is a pattern, you may find yourself realizing that there is little room for advancement if your boss is not willing to let you demonstrate the experience, insight and expertise s/he is paying you for.

      I wish you well.
      DrShaler

      • Hans -

        Great info. What if you combine contrarian with a safety sensitive job, for example, pilot? Imagine a chief pilot who is pretty much hated, can’t fly very well, contrarian, nice one minute then won’t even look you in the eyes the next, practical one minute then angry over some paperwork minutia the next, talking down to pilots who have successful 30 year carreers already in place, insulant in the cockpit, eccentric judgment ?? Miserable to work around.

        • Rhoberta Shaler, PhD -

          Miserable to work around for sure! It sounds like those folks you’re thinking of fit my definition of the term I trademarked, “Hijackals.” I define them as “people who hijack relationships for their own purposes, while relentlessly scavenging them for power, status, and control.

          I’ve written about them extensively, and I work with the partners, exes, adult children, and co-workers of Hijackals worldwide. You might be interested in my free ebook, How to Spot a Hijackal, available at http://Hijackals.com

    • Hans -

      Good ques. And, with such an individual, no matter how respectful and subordinate a person tries to be,,, the boss may just demand more and more and more until he/she has reduced the subordinate to a pile of ashes. If the person tries to draw a line along the way, it’s at that line they face consequences.

      • Rhoberta Shaler, PhD -

        You’re right, Hans. It sounds as though you have experienced that. I know that one from experience, too.

        That’s why it is important to use what I call “the confirmatory email:” each time something is asked of you, send a brief note stating what has been asked and asking for confirmation of scope/date/etc. Then, you have a trail. You can then go to the person and ask what they might like you to take off your plate because there is not enough time to do all that has been asked.

        I wish you well.
        Dr. Shaler

  2. Heidi -

    I think there are tons of contrarian men. I work in engineering field with mostly men and found them to be much more like women than I ever thought, except women will at least try and do fun things like bring cookies to work (some do this too, but usually there wife makes them).

    My experience will men is that men will hear an idea, say no at first, then later reiterate the idea and everyone in the room listens to that idea then when the man says it and nod in agreement as if it is the first time they heard it.

    Men are also gossipy and love to argue about politics, etc. just as much if not more than women.

    I am a woman and I am contrian at times, and I found men to be much more contrarian than women any day.

    I think that sometimes people also want to discuss things deeply and like the back and forth. Other people seem very sensitive to disagreement or feel stupid which is not the intent of the discussion or the person arguing a particular point. I listen often to the opposite point of view and later research the issue and see if my view changed or there is more evidence supporting my view.

    But I do realize most people just want to make speeches with no disagreement, so I try to fight my natural contrarian tendencies.

    However, for me it is much more interesting to have a back and forth discussion with no real winner.

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