Gentle Persistence

Have you noticed that nagging, whining, complaining, sternly directing, yelling, criticizing and freaking out don't seem to get you what you want from a partner, family member, friend, colleague or child? In a previous article, "Asking for What You Want," I explained how to ask cleanly and directly for what you want, and that being direct has a better success rate. While that's true, it isn't infallible. Sometimes, it's necessary to use a technique I call "gentle persistence."

At times, no matter how good you are at communication techniques, the other person will still refuse to talk with you about certain topics. This can happen when you're brand new at negotiating, or even after you have had several successful, satisfying discussions. Even people who are used to working on things together can get stuck in stubborn refusal to talk, if they're anxious, stressed or pressured.There are a lot of possible reasons why either of you could be reluctant or unwilling to negotiate:
  • If teamwork and solving problems together is new to either or both of you,
  • If the problem is particularly scary to either of you,
  • If one of you is afraid of being manipulated or overpowered,
  • If the problem seems insurmountable,
  • If one of you is accustomed to being in charge,
  • If the problem involves a life change.
  • If one of you is in a stressful situation or anxious about something.

If you have tried everything you know and the other person still refuses to talk about it, don't give up! Getting to a mutually workable agreement and the resulting mutual satisfaction and success are worth some extra effort on your part. At this point, gentle persistence is what you need.

Gentle persistence is the art of staying focused on your objective (solving your problem, getting an agreement to negotiate) and repeatedly asking the other person to participate, without sounding critical, impatient, pushy, overbearing or dictatorial. When it comes to opening up a discussion, gentle persistence can be a very effective and valuable skill.

Most of us only know how to persist in a nagging, complaining, whining or angry way. These styles of persistence are based in the belief that the other person won't cooperate, and has to be made unhappy or uncomfortable enough to give in. Gentle persistence, in contrast, is based on a belief that the other person is a reasonable person who wants to cooperate, but somehow (even after all your communicating, "I" messages, and invitations) hasn't heard you, and misinterprets or doesn't understand that's what you want. Such persistence may need to be repeated over a period of days or weeks, if the other person is very reluctant to listen or has a difficult time understanding what you mean, but, if you can resist the impulse to nag or complain, it is very often successful.

When you gently persist:
  • You let the other person know that the problem you're experiencing is very important and must be resolved, but in a gentle, uncritical, non-threatening way.
  • You gently but firmly refuse to give up your power to create good things in your life together, just because one of you is scared, angry or stubborn.
  • You stay focused on your purpose, and don't let yourself be drawn off course.
  • You calmly and lovingly refuse to take no for an answer.

Gentle persistence is not as hard as it may sound, and once you try it, you'll find out it works. The reward for gently persisting is a mutually satisfactory solution, and a relationship that works for both of you.

The following guidelines will help you maintain your balance, and not be pushy and manipulative or give up too easily.

Guidelines: Gentle Persistence

1. Be well prepared before trying gentle persistence. Gentle persistence, especially when you're new at it, requires that you be in firm control of yourself. Choose a moment when you feel strong, and you and the other person have some peaceful, uninterrupted time. You are demonstrating adult, thoughtful, calm and rational interaction for the other person, even if the other person is aggravating, dismissive or childish in his or her responses, so you must feel strong and comfortable enough to stay calm and positive in the face of negative responses. Be sure you're not upset, exhausted, fearful or angry when you try it. That means you may need to take care of yourself by blowing off steam elsewhere (in writing, to a friend) if you get annoyed, or dropping the subject temporarily (and coming back later) because you've run out of patience.

Understand that, until the other person realizes the importance of this particular issue to you, you are in the role of educator. Be sure you know clearly that your goal is to get an agreement to negotiate about your problem and that you're willing to explain it as many times as necessary, remaining calm every time.

2. You both deserve to have what you want. Gentle persistence is based on the conviction that you and the other person both deserve to get what you want. You're not asking for permission to have your way. You're making a firm offer to the other person to participate in the process so that he or she can have what they want also. If you hold that point of view, you won't feel guilty, helpless, hopeless or angry. Remembering that you're working to create a change (from competing or rescuing to cooperation) that is beneficial to both of you and your relationship, and even raises the odds that your relationship will continue to be successful, will keep you objective and motivated to succeed.

3. Be gentle and firm. Gentleness means treating the other person with respect and caring, while firmness means not giving in or giving up. If the other person says something, listen and respond with reassurance or simple facts, but don't agree unless it's meeting your objective. Don't slide into nagging, manipulating, pushing, coercing, or abusing. Let the other person know that the issue is important to you, that you are serious about finding a satisfactory solution, that you want his or her participation in solving it, and you're not going to give up or forget the idea.

4. Be sincere about cooperating. Before you try gentle persistence be sure that you really are willing to negotiate and that you honestly want the other person to be satisfied, too, so that your invitation to the other person to participate is genuine. If you really desire a cooperative, equal relationship, and the other person doesn't understand the value of that, it's up to you to lead the way. To succeed, you must accept the responsibility of being cooperative whether or not the other person agrees to participate.

5. Try to understand the other person's resistance. His or her inexperience, mistrust, need to control, or reluctance to be direct can be in the way. Encourage the other person to talk about his or her reluctance, and listen carefully. What you learn will make the difference for your success.

6. Be as objective as possible. When you express what you feel, use "I" messages, and don't expect the other person to agree. Instead, try to see both sides: why you want to negotiate, as well as why the other person doesn't. The better you understand the other person's attitude and concerns, the more effective you will be at reassuring and convincing him or her that the discussion will benefit him or her, too. Seek to explain the benefits of working together as the other person would perceive them, through reassurance and active listening.

7. Address the other person's fear. You may need to reassure the other person many times while you are gently persisting, because you are changing the rules for how you deal with each other, and change is unsettling and produces anxiety. Unwillingness to negotiate almost always indicates fear of the outcome. It can be very reassuring to remind the other person: "I don't want to discomfort or embarrass you." Or our old standby, "I want both of us to be satisfied. I won't consider this negotiation successful or complete unless you get what you want, too."

8. Remind the other person of your good will. Love and respect usually reduce defensiveness and make cooperation easier. Take some time to remind yourself of all the good and valuable aspects of your relationship, and then share them with the other person. Tell the other person you believe that together, you can solve the problem.

These steps are not necessarily easy, and learning to use them may require overcoming old, bad habits that lead to struggle. Take your time, and keep practicing. Familiarity with this technique can change every important relationship you have.