A friend of mine recently asked me how you are supposed to handle people who have no social skills whatsoever. So, for example, when you meet someone and they can be very cutting or say horrible things but they do not seem to notice the impact on other people. Or they tell inappropriate jokes or shout at people and they do not see what the problem is.
Well, first things first. The more you can make them aware of the impact of their behaviour the better. I have worked in quite a lot of corporate contexts with managers who fail to understand why they are not liked by their team. Yet when I see them interacting with them they rarely smile and are extremely harsh in their tone. This means that whenever they do say something nice it gets lost in the tone.
Educating people about the way in which they communicate is a vital step toward helping them change it. Many people live in a world of information. They are conveying information without thinking how it is conveyed. But communication is like music. The lyrics are important but the impact of the song depends largely on the melody. You must be aware of the melody of your words if you are to improve the impact you have with them. We can all improve in this area by becoming even more congruent when we communicate.
So when it comes to actually giving feedback to someone who makes this mistake, I have two suggestions. If you know them well and have a good relationship with them, explain the situation bluntly and every time you hear them making the mistake, repeat what they have said in the same way. By doing this you will point their behaviour out to them which they may not have been aware of. This conditioning will get them working on it.
If you do not know them too well, you can ask them if they are misunderstood sometimes. This opens the door for you to explain that what they say is so important but sometimes others do not understand them because of how they say it. You compliment them while giving feedback.
For example, many mothers or fathers will understand this. They will speak to their adolescent and wonder why they get a negative reaction regardless of what they say. Often it is because they use the same tone of voice when they talk to their child so the child learns to hear it all as ‘nagging’. Changing the tone of your voice makes your child become much more likely to hear what it is that you are saying. For a while at least 🙂
Finally, if you do not know them at all, find the humour in what it is that they are doing. Much of comedy is based on the incongruence of communication so there is plenty of funny stuff to mine here. Once you do this, it sets you free from taking what they say badly and allows you to reinterpret them in a way that is conducive to having a much better experience with them.