For the past three decades, I’ve been observing the way people behave in personal and business relationships, with the intent of finding the meaningful patterns of what works and doesn’t work to bring about positive change. Here are the top ten lessons I’ve learned about how to click with people.

#1 Make Useful Assumptions
Assumptions determine behavior. Behavior produces experiences. Experiences reinforce initial assumptions. Whatever you assume to be true, you act like it’s true and look for proof. This is the loop of self-fulfilling prophecy.

The challenge with assumptions is to make useful ones rather than limiting ones. A useful assumption gives you enough informed perspective on your own behavior and the behavior of others that you can engage in behaviors that lead to worthwhile outcomes. Limiting assumptions inhibit your creativity and resourcefulness, trigger negative reactions in you, and cause you to engage in behaviors that lead to limiting yet self-fulfilling outcomes. “I knew he wouldn’t listen.” “I knew she didn’t care.” Did you? Then you win the booby prize.

Now you may be thinking, “Yeah, but what if I AM right?” Well, what if? Does it help you or hinder you to be right? If you must assume something, assume something useful.

#2 Assume Positive Intent
I find it useful to assume that people do what they do for a good reason, even the most difficult behavior. Behavior changes as priorities change, so I’ve identified four positive intentions you can assign to people in almost any situation to good effect. They are: action, accuracy, approval and appreciation.

When action is your highest priority, your awareness of other people becomes peripheral, or limited to that which is necessary to accomplish your aim. If things are taking too long, you may become careless and aggressive, leaping before you look, and speaking without thinking first. Others perceive this as pushy behavior.

When accuracy is your highest priority, you will slow things down to see the details, and you may refuse to act due to doubt about the consequences. If you’re afraid of something going wrong, you will find fault and point out problems. Others may perceive this as ‘being negative.’

When gaining approval is your intent, you’ll put other’s needs above your own. If you’re concerned about disapproval, you may say yes when you mean no or maybe when a decision is called for. Others may perceive this as being unreliable.

When gaining recognition drives you, you need a higher level of assertiveness to be seen, heard, and recognized. If it seems you’re being ignored, you may act out, explode in anger, take credit where it isn’t due or misrepresent something so as not to appear undeserving. Others may perceive this as distracting and disruptive.

Each of these intents has a time and place in our lives. Recognize these intents in others and you can speak to their need, lower their stress and make them more receptive to your communication. Recognize your own intent and you can more easily ask for what you need from others. Balanced, you can reduce stress and improve communication.

#3 Know What You Want
The first question a doctor is taught to ask a patient is, “What is your chief complaint?” or “What’s wrong?” Everybody knows what they don’t want. Complaining is easy. The problem is that if all you know is what you don’t want, you will get more of it. The challenge in life, and in communication specifically, is to define a direction, and organize yourself around that outcome. You’ve heard the expression, “Begin with the end in mind.” Knowing your desired outcome is key to productive interactions.

#4 Meet People Where They Are
What is it about people that makes some so easy to relate to, and others so difficult to deal with? United We Stand, Divided We Can’t Stand Each other. Conflict occurs when the emphasis is on the differences between people. The difference between conflict with a friend and conflict with a difficult person is that with a friend the conflict is tempered by the common ground you share. People reduce differences naturally when they share a common vision, care about each other, or want to deepen a relationship. We do this with facial expressions, animation and body posture, with our voice volume and speed, and conceptually with our words. But as natural as it is with some, it may stop when you perceive someone or something as difficult. No one cooperates with anyone who seems to be against them. People need to know “Are you with me or not?” Seek common ground.

#5 Listen To Go Deep
If you’re going to bother to listen to someone, then listen to go deep. There are at least four great reasons to do this. First, people want to be heard and understood. Second, people like to hear themselves talk. Even shy people, who may like it so much they save it for special occasions! Let them talk; you get some credit for their enjoyment. Third, people are drawn to people who listen. The most effective leaders, managers, parents and teachers are great listeners, and the result is they can respond to what’s going on sooner than those who weren’t listening. But the most compelling reason to listen well is that often, people don’t know what they’re talking about. This accounts for all the ironic and paradoxical communications that you hear. If they don’t know what they’re talking about, and neither do you, listening well gives both of you a chance to find out.

#6 Choose Your Words Carefully
When I was a medical student, my mentor told me that two abilities distinguish the exceptional doctor from the acceptable doctor, knowing how to listen and how to talk. Why? “Because most patients would get better if their doctors would just listen to them, and most doctors make their patients sick by the way they talk to them.” Words well chosen help people turn knowledge into action. They have the power to motivate, stir memory and vision. And words that spring from a narrowed mind can polarize a situation. Words that carry too much certainty and importance can build a wall. And words spoken without thought can complicate your true meaning. You can say more with less, and achieve more with less, if you choose your words carefully.

#7 Relationships Are About Perception
Ever been told, “You’re not listening to me!” but you heard them say it? Obviously, you were listening, yet somehow, they failed to perceive it. Everything you say and do is filtered by perception, which results from a mental process called generalization, where little things add up–both the good and the bad. Why leave this to chance? Instead, add perception to what you do by asking for feedback.

First, create context by saying your desired result. “I want to be the best manager you’ve ever had.” “I want our service to exceed your expectations.” “I want to be considered for a promotion.” Then ask for help. “I can’t do that without your help.” Then find out what you’re doing that you could do better, what you’re not doing that you should be, and what you’re doing that you should stop. Most importantly, ask for the evidence that would tell them that you were or weren’t doing what they tell you.

You can use the same basic approach in giving feedback, too. Give people a good reason to hear you. “I want you to succeed at your job.” “I want to have a strong working relationship with you.” “I want to be able to count on you in trying times.” Then offer your help. Small understandings lead to powerful generalizations. Perception is everything.

#8 Project and Expect The Best
People get defensive when you tell them they’re doing something wrong. You can minimize this by giving them the benefit of the doubt and projecting the best, even when they do things you wish they wouldn’t. Fact is, most people rise or fall to the level of your expectations. When you talk to someone like they are capable of better behavior, they tend to behave in a way that makes that projection true. When a person does something you don’t like, you may be tempted to think or say “That’s the problem with you.” Instead, learn to say “That’s not like you!” and then tell them how you want them to be, as if they already are. Use this same approach to reinforce good behavior, no matter how unusual it actually is. “That’s what I like about you,” and then describe the positive behavior.

#9 Keep Your Wits About You
People would rather be around someone with a smile in their heart than someone with heartburn. While too much clowning is disruptive and distracting, a little humor can make someone’s day. Finding humor and sharing it is one of the simplest ways to keep your wits about you. Good humor breaks down the barriers that keep us divided and polarized, and builds bridges to bring us together. Humor discharges resistance, overcomes stubbornness, and creates opportunity for dialog. We open presentations with humor to attract interest. We insert something a little foolish into a meeting to put people on common footing. We do something fun together to create an atmosphere of goodwill. Good humor is a powerful tool for the person serious about creating positive change.

But not all humor is fun, and bad humor is one of the fastest ways to put people in a bad mood, undermine relationships, create hard feelings, offend sensibilities, poison an atmosphere and destroy what could have been a great event, project, team, business, or community. If it is tasteless, please spare us.

#10 Create Change In Stages
People don’t suddenly change their behavior. First they have to change their mind. Change happens in stages, and the first stage is ignorance, where you don’t know what you don’t know. There are three kinds of ignorance that keep people from changing:

They don’t know change is an option.
They don’t know why they should choose change.
They don’t know how to go about it.

Assume ignorance any time you want to help someone change. It may not to be true, but it will keep you from getting too far ahead of yourself, and remind you to speak clearly, carefully, and coherently to bring someone to the next stage, recognition. It’s that moment when people see the light, then seek out and become receptive to new information about possibilities, and ask about how to go forward.

Provide what is missing and you’re in the next stage, planning. This is the mentoring and modeling stage, where a person begins to organize the new information, access resources, and plot a course. Many change efforts fail in this stage, because the plan was premature. That’s not a signal to jump to the worst conclusions (they didn’t really mean it, they’re incapable of change, etc.) but instead, identify the area of ignorance and restart the cycle.

Now you’re in the action stage, and action happens one step at a time. People making a change need reassurance and encouragement. Don’t be surprised if there are false starts. When people try something new, things rarely go as expected.

The last stage of change is making a habit. Habit is created through repetition and intensity. It is a mistake to expect people to go from ignorance to habit in a single step. Don’t push the river, because change happens one stage at a time.

Bringing out the best in people is one of my favorite things to do, and I hope this article has that effect on you.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Rick Kirschner has helped millions improve their communication skills and have better relationships and careers. He is co-author of the classic, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand, and co-creator of the all-time bestselling audio and video program, How to Deal with Difficult People. His new book How to Click With People (July 2011) reveals the secret to better relationships in business and in life. For a free one-hour audio on Difficult People, visit: