how to talk to someone who doesn't want to talk to you

How Do You Talk to Someone Who Doesn’t Want to Talk?


How to talk to someone who doesn’t want to talk to you?  Do you gently ask what’s the matter?  Should you try to let them vent their emotions? Or is it best to reschedule the meeting? In this case study, we’ll explore the pros and cons of all 3 approaches, and show you which is most effective. Then when you are faced with an uncommunicative employee, you will know how to effectively manage the situation.

The Situation

You are a vice president at a regional company. 50 people work in the office, 12 of whom are your direct reports.

Dennis is a solid employee with a good work ethic. Lately, you have noticed that he seems distracted. He has made some errors in his work, which is not like him. While he quickly rectified the problems, you want to have a discussion with him. So you stop by his workstation and ask if he could meet you in your office. You want to keep it casual.

You Do Not Want to Talk to Me

When he arrives, Dennis seems angry and upset — face flushed and body tense. You open with, “Dennis, you are upset about something, I can tell.” Dennis quickly looks down and says through clenched teeth, “Not a problem. What’s up?”

How to Get Someone to Open Up

As a manager applying Q4 leadership behavior, what is you next move?  Click on your choice to see our thoughts.

Your Choices:

Click the best answer below. Our answer will then highlight with an explanation below.
A. Try a few more reflective statements to help Dennis vent his feelings and calm down. Then you can move forward with your meeting.

 No, please try again.

B. Tell Dennis you are cancelling your meeting for now. Suggest that you want to try again when he regains his composure.

How to Talk to Someone Who Doesn’t Want to Talk to You

This content is drawn from our book Leadership Through People Skills. Check it out for a fuller treatment of the Q4 Model and how to deal with different types of behavior differently.

Using More Reflective Statements to Help Someone Vent Emotions

Option A, using a reflective statement to acknowledge Dennis’s anger, was a good way to begin. It often helps diffuse anger or other high emotions, and can allow someone to vent and lower their emotional thermostat.

However, in this case, Dennis did not respond. Right now, further reflective statements will not work because Dennis’ receptivity is at rock bottom. He just won’t engage if strong emotions are blocking him. It’s pointless to go on. The best thing to do is postpone your meeting. See Answer B. 

If Someone is Very Upset, Postpone the Meeting

One of the most important factors for communicating effectively as a leader is monitoring receptivity. If people are preoccupied by emotions that conflict with giving their full attention, you will simply spin your wheels trying to get somewhere. Sure, you can demand that a direct report sit there and go through the motions: “We’re not done here till I get to the bottom of this.” But that’s not your goal as a Q4 leader.

In this case, you have tried to engage, but you see the degree of anger in Dennis’s demeanor. By waiting even a short time, his receptivity will raise as his emotions subside. He may still be bothered by something, but he’ll probably be able to discuss it. If he doesn’t care to say, he will still be able to have a discussion about his work.

As a leader, pay close attention to the behavior you observe, and monitor receptivity in an ongoing way. Choice B is the best option for how to talk to someone who doesn’t want to talk to you. 

Probe to See What is Wrong

While you should feel responsible for the welfare of your direct reports, Dennis’s receptivity to talk is currently very low. Even if your intentions are good, it’s useless to continue. You probably won’t learn anything worthwhile right now. Also, what if it turns out that Dennis is angry with you? Waiting for even just a short time will improve communication. Choice C is not a good solution here. See Choice B. 

C. Since Dennis is your direct report, you are responsible for his welfare at work. Gently ask questions to learn what’s wrong so you can help.

 No, please try again.

Further Interpersonal Communication Skill Development

Having mastered how to talk to someone who doesn’t want to talk to you, you are eager to learn more, right?  Our 40 leadership tips will help you navigate a variety of challenging people situations at work.

Do you work with a difficult person? Our behavioral questionnaire can be your virtual coach, providing suggestions to help you be more effective.

Our leadership tips and behavioral questionnaire provide knowledge. If you are ready to take the next step and put your knowledge into action, check our our leadership development resources. From workshops, to coaching, to 360 feedback and more, we can help you consistently exhibit Q4 leadership to drive better results.

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