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9 ways to better communicate with someone you don't like, according to therapists

This article was medically reviewed by Brad Brenner, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and co-founder of the Therapy Group of DC, the Capital Therapy Project, the Therapy Group of NYC, the Therapy Group of Charlotte, the Berkshire Therapy Group, and WithTherapy.
A difficult coworker yells at her other three coworkers who look frustrated and burned out with her attitude.
It can be difficult, but empathizing with a difficult person can help improve communication.
grinvalds / Getty Images

  • It’s not always easy to practice good communication when you don’t get along with someone.
  • I-statements, active listening, and relaxed body language can lead to more productive conversations.
  • Coming from a place of curiosity can help you consider their feelings and find some common ground.

As you go through life, you'll have to interact with plenty of people you may not necessarily like, from colleagues and classmates to roommates and family members. The key to keeping things civil lies in good communication.

Practicing good communication can help improve your personal and professional relationships by:

  • Building trust
  • Fostering mutual respect
  • Ensuring you're more likely to get needs met
  • Preventing potentially hurtful misunderstandings

Next time you have to interact with someone you don't get along with — or don't particularly care for — try using the following expert-approved communication tips.

1. Lead with empathy

"Disliking someone often comes from a lack of understanding about where that person is coming from," says Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College.

Saltz recommends putting yourself in the other person's shoes. You may not like them much, but it's still worth considering their feelings to gain potentially helpful insight into why they behave a certain way.

For example, maybe you ask your classmate why they didn't complete their share of the work on a group project. If they say they didn't understand the directions but were too afraid to say so, you can empathize with their experience by recalling a time in your life when you felt unsure about something but didn't know how to ask for help.

2. Practice active and reflective listening

It's easy to misinterpret someone and put a negative spin on their words when you don't particularly like them. That's why Saltz advises using active listening and reflective listening techniques to make sure you get accurate information.

  • Active listening involves giving them your full attention and making a sincere effort to absorb what they're saying. 
  • Reflective listening entails mirroring what they said to clarify their thoughts and feelings and confirm you understand.

So, the next time a coworker complains about the way you ran a meeting, you might say, "I'm hearing you didn't feel I included you enough in that meeting. Is that right?" 

That allows your colleague to either confirm this statement or correct any misconceptions on your part — but it could also open the door to more effective communication and a better working relationship.

3. Give them the benefit of the doubt

It's helpful to give people the benefit of the doubt rather than making assumptions about why they behave a certain way, according to Kara Nassour, a licensed professional counselor in private practice.

A 2021 study found one key benefit of this approach: People who gave others the benefit of the doubt all or some of the time were happier than those who didn't.

Maybe your roommate has taken to leaving their dishes in the sink instead of washing them daily as you agreed. 

Instead of chalking this up to laziness or carelessness, you might ask, "Hey, what's going on in your life these days? Is something making it hard for you to get the dishes done?"

You may be surprised to find out they've recently worked a lot of late nights or are dealing with a relationship crisis. Having this information can help you take their actions less personally.

4. Take a time-out 

It's difficult to have a productive conversation with someone when you feel actively angry or frustrated. If you dislike them, you might be more likely to resort to eye-rolling, raising your voice, or other responses that can make things worse. 

That's why Larissa House, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice, suggests waiting to converse until you feel emotionally "neutral." 

When a conversation with an unfair boss starts to get heated, for instance, you might try pressing pause by asking, "Would it be all right to revisit this in an hour?"

House recommends using grounding techniques like breathing exercises or calming visualizations to get back to an emotionally neutral state before re-engaging.

5. Try to find common ground

When dealing with people you don't particularly care for, Davin advises focusing on the things you have in common rather than all the things dividing you.

Even if you can find just one thing that connects you — a shared passion for basketball or a person you both care for — that's enough to build a bridge and relieve some tension, Davin says.

For instance, if you have to confront your mother-in-law about the snide remarks she  makes toward you in your spouse's presence, Omar Ruiz, LMFT, founder of Online Private Practice, recommends focusing on your shared love for her child. 

This could help remind her that ultimately, neither of you wants your spouse to feel upset or uncomfortable, which could make a difference.

6. Be mindful of your body language

Even when you're not speaking, your gestures, posture, and facial expressions can convey a lot of information about your emotions, according to Patrick Rowley, LPC, Manager of Clinical Programming at Sesh

Having your arms crossed at your chest or turning your torso or feet away from someone suggests you're closed off or disinterested in what someone has to say. 

You may subconsciously default to this posture when you feel defensive, which is more likely to happen around someone you don't like. Rowley also says fidgeting with your fingers or glancing at your phone can suggest distraction. 

Instead, try to maintain an open stance — with your arms at your sides and feet pointed toward them — to appear more receptive and engaged. 

As an added bonus, a small 2015 study found students with open postures felt more confident, cheerful, and relaxed — while closed postures increased their anxiety, fatigue, and impatience.

7. Make requests, not accusations

When someone's behavior bothers you, Nassour advises stating what you need them to change rather than just pointing a finger at what they're doing wrong. 

As a general guideline, it can help to start statements with "I feel," rather than "You always" or "You never." "You" statements can come off as accusatory and put the other person on the defensive.

For example, instead of telling your coworker, "You always dominate our conversations," you might say, "I feel like I haven't had a chance to contribute much to our discussions, and I have some ideas I'd really like to bounce off you. Do you think you can make some space for me to share those?"

8. Be curious

When someone reacts in a way that's off-putting or fails to do something they agreed to do, Davin says the best approach involves asking questions. 

Getting curious helps bring more clarity to their intentions, for one. It also cultivates a more open dialogue that gives you space to honestly express your thoughts and feelings.

Let's say your father keeps giving you unsolicited parenting advice, which creates tension and conflict in your relationship. 

Rather than jumping to the conclusion that he thinks you're clueless or incapable, consider saying, "I've noticed you have a lot of opinions on how we should be handling the kids, and I'd love to know where that's coming from." 

If you find out he thinks he's helping and doesn't realize he comes off as disapproving, your conversation could end up improving your relationship.

9. Pick your battles

Nassour advises discerning between which conflicts you need to engage in and which you can move on from.

For instance, if your brother-in-law brings up politics at the dinner table over the holidays and says some things you don't agree with, you might just let it go and change the subject.

After all, you don't spend much time with him, so you don't have to be the best of friends. 

On the other hand, if your families spend a lot of time together and he regularly says things that directly offend you, you might decide to start a conversation about this pattern.

Picking and choosing the battles worth fighting will allow you to conserve your energy for the ones that actually matter.

Insider's takeaway

It's perfectly fine to not like everyone you meet or regularly spend time with — but you can still treat them with courtesy.

Respectful communication can benefit your relationship by allowing you to trust each other more, collaborate more effectively, and enjoy a more harmonious environment. 

Simple measures like reflective listening, practicing empathy, asking questions, finding common ground, and being mindful of your body language can go a long way in ensuring you understand each other to the best of your abilities.

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