This post is part of our Weekly Tips series.

It’s that time of year again. Holiday and year-end celebrations are approaching at lightning speed, which means a high probability you’re negatively anticipating, or even dreading, being with a certain family member. Or two. Or more. A politically-charged climate makes this 100 times harder.

Your most difficult relative is really hard to hang out with. I’m sorry to say he or she can also be your best teacher. Why? Because listening is a hallmark skill that distinguishes advisors from trusted advisors and mediocre sales people from extraordinary sales professionals.

And if you can listen (for real) to Uncle Ernie, you can listen to anyone.

Of course, we both know there’s a time to listen and a time to take a stand—true for both relatives and clients. Sometimes the best order is listen first, then take a stand. Sometimes the stand should come first. Either way, a lot of listening usually helps, even though it’s the exact opposite of what our baser instincts tell us to do with the people who drive us crazy.

Brief pause for a true confession: I’m still not very good at this, and though I’m not proud to say it, I’m hugely relieved to have recently learned that my toughest relative has made plans to be away for the holiday.

Back to listening: Most of us are mediocre listeners, at best, because to listen masterfully we have to do things like manage our own reactions when we’re triggered. Then we have to tune in in a way that our everyday lives simply don’t support.

[Tweet “How the family member you dread most is your key to honing a critical #business skill: #getreal #communication”]

Happily, the solution to the listening problem doesn’t require surgery or a major personality overhaul. It’s available to you during any and every waking hour, and there’s no better time for it than during quality time with the cantankerous relative with the ability to wind you up like a tightly-coiled spring in a matter of seconds.

The solution is simple, not easy. It’s practice.

It’s really hard to listen when you don’t like someone, and especially when you don’t agree. Here are some phrases that might help you stay in listening mode:

  • “Wow, we see that really differently. Tell me more about your take on that.”
  • “Interesting! What do you see, from your vantage point?”
  • “This is clearly important to you. What’s your biggest concern about it?”
  • “Seems like you’ve thought a lot about this. What led you to your point of view?”
  • “Hmmmm … what’s behind that?”

With practice, you learn to overcome your biggest listening barriers. And that’s not just an investment in Uncle Ernie; it’s an investment in you.

Make It Real

This week, unleash your natural curiosity on everyone with whom you interact—family, friends, clients, colleagues—especially when they say or do something that really irks you. What techniques help you really tune in? What helps you manage your own reactivity?

Learn More


Refresh on what Everyday Empathy sounds like, or recall why you listening to them is the best way to get them to listen to you in Chapter 3 of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.

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Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).