How To Communicate With People Who Are Rigid, Dogmatic, and Inflexible

You have undoubtedly come across more than one person who can make your life difficult by being overly rigid and inflexible.  Such people come across as unchangeable, egotistical, stubborn, and a challenge to work with.

Inflexible people use communications which are likely to be brusque, defensive, or even rude.  They find it hard to adapt and prefer to stick with proven, familiar ways.  These dogmatic types can dominate a group with their entrenched opinions or obstinate objections.

Lurking behind those insensitive communications is often a  talented specialist, a vital gatekeeper, or a team mate who is vital to your success.  Although interpersonally challenged, the low flex person often has admirable skills in other areas.

How can you communicate with such a person?  Following are eight pointers for keeping your cool and turning a person you view as a potential road block into a successful ally. 

1.  Don’t become inflexible yourself. One of the most common, but ineffective ways to respond to difficult people is to act like them.  If they shout, you’re tempted to shout back.  If they take a rigid stand, you feel like arguing back with an even more rigid position.  This communication spiral can only go downwards, degenerating into a tit for tat stand-off, with the real issues forgotten.  Instead of returning the inflexible behavior, maintain self control by using respectful, calm, and thoughtful communications.  Model the kind of interactions you expect.  Don’t lose your temper or tune out. 

 Say: “This is a tough issue. Let’s work on it together. Perhaps we can find several workable answers.”

2.  Focus away from yourself and to the other person.  A vital aspect of good communications is being “other oriented.”  This means putting your needs aside and trying to fully understand the other person. Concentrate on absorbing the message being sent, however harshly worded. Validate the person’s right to his or her opinions.  Avoid the temptation to move to your own agenda.  Block out unrelated  thoughts and emotions.  Bring the low flex person’s needs and frustrations into clear focus.  What is this person really trying to communicate?

Say: “You seem very frustrated about this.  I’m trying my best to understand how this is impacting you.”

3.  Just say yes. If you truly support the opinions, decisions, or input of the low flex person, say so up front.  One of the common causes of rigid behavior is fear of rejection.  If you can honestly agree, diffuse the tension by stepping into the conversation with your agreement.  This approach takes away the need for the low flex person to protect or defend his/her position. Do not make the low flex person’s behavior an issue.  Move forward to action, resolution, and results.

Say: “You’re right.  I completely agree.  Now how can we make this idea happen?  What’s our plan?”

4.  Assertively and respectfully disagree. Don’t let a rigid, dogmatic individual bully you into silence.  You don’t want someone thinking you agree if you don’t.  Avoid being a wimp or passive aggressive or using malicious compliance.  Express your contradictory opinion without making the other person wrong or putting him/her down.  Be respectful in how you deliver your ideas.  Demonstrate that examining opposing points of view can make final decisions even stronger.  Speak up, be pro-active, but remain respectful and positive.

Say: “That idea might work well.  I’d like you to listen to an alternative idea which you might find useful.”

5.  Listen athletically. Sometimes, inflexibility occurs because people feel they haven’t been heard or paid attention to.  Especially in this situation, show that you are listening through your attention, your tone, and your responses.  Remember the simple, but often overlooked point that listening means you are NOT TALKING.  It even means you aren’t thinking about what to say next.  Listening means you are only on the receiving end, not preparing for the sending end of the next communications.

Say: nothing (but do acknowledge that you are listening.)

6. Check for understanding. Before adding your comments, demonstrate that you have heard the points made and check for understanding.  Don’t assume; verify.  Avoid moving on to new topics or presuming that agreement exists without finalizing inputs.  Check frequently to avoid having so many ideas that confirming understanding becomes overwhelming.

Say: “You feel the project is so far behind that you can’t support the existing schedule.  Do I understand correctly that this is your main concern?”

7.  Do not let inflexible people dominate group discussions. A group often surrenders rather than tangle with someone who is determined to take a stand.  You may need to explore many tactics to find an approach which will keep the group on task and allow input from everyone.  Set group norms which include an equal hearing for all.  Stick to the process and redirect the communication flow as needed.  Be polite, but firm.

 Say: “Bill, you’ve made your point very convincingly.  Now we need to hear from the quiet members of the group.”

8. Try to determine why this person is so defensive. Exploring the reasons behind defensive behaviors will help you understand what the low flex person is defending against.  Defensiveness is a way of protecting beliefs,  position, authority, self worth, or other strong feelings.  While the causes of other people’s behavior are not always clear, you can always try to discover them.  If you gain this understanding, then you can help the person save face or protect areas of high emotional value.

Say: “Help me understand why this is so important to you.”

Dealing with low flex people requires high doses of energy, patience, and self control.  The rewards of communicating effectively are that the low flex person may in turn listen, support, and respect you.  When low flex people choose to remain stubborn, that’s their choice. Your choice about how you communicate can, and should be more flexible.

If you or your organization needs training, consulting, or coaching on relationship issues in the workplace, please contact Kaye Sullivan.

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9 Responses to “How To Communicate With People Who Are Rigid, Dogmatic, and Inflexible”


  1. 1 Catrin February 14, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    I found this VERY helpful. My celebrity boss is very dogmatic and supercilious person. It’s nice to read something that will help me deal with her. Thank you very much1

    • 2 Kaye Sullivan February 14, 2013 at 4:06 pm

      You are very welcome. People like your boss can present a huge challenge. If you learn to deal with him/her, you will learn skills that serve you well for the rest of your life. Good luck!

  2. 3 joyandwishing March 13, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    Good pointers. I was looking for a way to engage an older man in conversation/communication and have been stymied. Of course I always let my emotions get in the way so I’ll try and focus on understanding his perspective (even though I have asked him directly to explain his position to me- it’s always “that’s the way I want to do it.”). A huge part of the problem is that he won’t meet with me face to face and has, over the past 6 month, ignored my calls and mail with contracts and positions. He still has a thick German accent and is a retired engineer (GM). I have never in my life encountered such an inflexible human being. I don’t want to give up but he has now given me an ultimatum, due in 4 days – his way or the highway. (Rereading this makes me think maybe I should give up. Seems futile, and maybe foolish.)
    Will bookmark none-the-less and refer to when needed. Thank you.

    • 4 Kaye Sullivan March 14, 2013 at 1:15 pm

      Rigid communications are always challenge and tiring if they never let up. It’s ok to give up if you have a better alternative that works better for you! Good luck and thank you for your kind comments.

    • 5 Kaye Sullivan March 14, 2013 at 1:15 pm

      Rigid communications are always challenge and tiring if they never let up. It’s ok to give up if you have a better alternative that works better for you! Good luck and thank you for your kind comments.

  3. 6 Pure Leverage April 20, 2013 at 6:33 am

    I’m really impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to see a nice blog like this one nowadays.

  4. 7 karabo June 16, 2013 at 12:26 pm

    I have found this read very interesting. In your blog you say, the dogmatic person may be your boss. Well in my case it’s my mother. Your blog has really helped me understand her.
    I have a new approach towards our relationship now. Thank you so much.

  5. 8 Patricia P Lyons (@PPoplyons91) July 28, 2013 at 10:39 am

    Thank you for posting this. It is often hard to find useful information like this on the internet with out having to purchase something. My aunt is very dogmatic and I have just graduated from college and I will be moving back home with her. A part of the reason I went so far away from home was to be free of this behavior, and now that i’m moving back home I now have a few tools to include in my methods of communication with her. Thank you. can you recommend any further readings?

  6. 9 Lakendra Delagol December 11, 2013 at 11:37 am

    Greetings from Ohio! I’m bored to death at work so I decided to browse your site on my iphone during lunch break.
    I really like the information you present here and
    can’t wait to take a look when I get home. I’m surprised at how quick your blog loaded on my mobile ..
    I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyways, awesome site!


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