Navigating Conversations with Avoidant Personalities: 5 Archetypes & Communication Strategies

How do we speak with people who avoid conversations? This is a universal challenge for leaders, alongside leading through resistance to change.

I tackled this topic for our April 2023 Mental Model Dōjō community session. In this 22-minute video, I share five archetypes of avoidant personalities and corresponding communication strategies.

Dig in, this is key leadership learning!

(Slides and transcript below. Watch on YouTube:

Slides & Transcript

How to Speak with People Who Avoid Conversations: 5 Archetypes & Communication Strategies

Navigating conversations with avoidant personalities. We all have experiences of feeling like we’re talking to a brick wall when speaking to someone.

“Why can’t I have a normal conversation with this person?” Frustrating isn’t it.

Let’s talk about that today.

Reactions met when speaking with an avoidant person...

How to have a normal conversation with an avoidant person. It’s a challenging topic. Today we want to be more exploratory and deeper in unpacking the challenge, so before jumping straight to solutions, let’s establish a process for unpacking the issue.

My approach to tackling broad topics is to begin with a blank slate. I use my own observations and feelings as a starting point to grasp the challenge.

The question I began with was: “What are some typical reactions we encounter when speaking with an avoidant person?” Here’s what I found:

  • We encounter nonverbal cues: silence, hesitance, stonewalling, lack of eye contact, nervousness like fidgeting and crossed arms, and defensiveness.
  • We’re met with verbal deflection: excuses, downplaying the issue, and attempts to change the subject.
  • We get non-committal responses: superficial agreements, like “Yeah, yeah, okay” with no intention of follow-through. Easy promises, empty guarantees.
  • And then there’s withdrawal: attempts to fade away, disappear, or “ghost” the conversation entirely.
  • And finally, sabotage: counter-productive behavior that actively undermines our ask.
What are some types of avoidant people?

Through this initial exercise, I realized that avoidant behavior manifests in various ways. Most likely there are different personality types, traits, and situations that contribute to avoidance.

So, I did some Design Thinking to develop a few personas representing these different avoidant personalities.

Five Archetypes of Avoidant Personalities in the Office (A heuristic categorization by Coach Takeshi)

And here’s my result. Five Archetypes of Avoidant Personalities, and since I only did my thinking exercise in the context of work, Five Archetypes of Avoidant Personalities in the Office.

This is based on my own heuristics, that is experience, so they may not be entirely comprehensive and I most likely have biases. However, for a thought exercise, these categories should be helpful.

Let’s explore these five categories starting with the Sensitive and continuing through the Developing, the Exhausted, the Proud, and the Elusive.

The Sensitive - Five Archetypes of Avoidant Personalities in the Office (A heuristic categorization by Coach Takeshi)

First, the Sensitive.

Typically, highly sensitive people are also introverted and shy, and they may suffer from social anxiety.

Internally, they may have strong fears of failure and negative evaluation.

This can lead to low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, and a fear of being seen as incompetent.

They may have had traumatic past experiences that make them want to avoid conflict and anything stressful. In severe cases, this can develop into learned helplessness, a deep feeling of despair and resignation. Their silence or stonewalling might be a “freeze” response in the fight-flight-freeze reaction – what we call the “deer in headlights” syndrome.

In psychiatry, avoidant personality disorder (AvPD) is a diagnosis for people with severe social anxiety and avoidant behaviors. It might be the case that we are dealing with someone who has a clinical-level challenge. Additionally, their behaviors could be symptoms of other developmental conditions such as ADHD, ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), and OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). These cases require special consideration and support in terms of diversity and inclusion.

The Developing - Five Archetypes of Avoidant Personalities in the Office (A heuristic categorization by Coach Takeshi)

Next, the Developing.

For junior staff and other colleagues who are still developing their skills, it’s understandable that they struggle with performance anxiety and lack of confidence.

The saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” When you haven’t learned about something or haven’t tried it yet, it’s naturally scary. And further in many workplaces, there’s a stigma attached to asking for help. Combined with the fear of negative evaluation, all these factors contribute to risk-avoidant behavior.

There’s also the element of isolation and inclusion to consider. Newbies and those who feel less skilled than other team members may feel timid about integrating into the team.

The Exhausted - Five Archetypes of Avoidant Personalities in the Office (A heuristic categorization by Coach Takeshi)

Now, the Exhausted.

Too much on their plate, stressed, stretched thin. When you approach them, you might be met with a sharp response like “What!” or “Not now!” They are simply so tired, both mentally and physically.

Or you might not even get a response. A blank stare, with no life in their eyes, this could be a sign of overwhelm and mental paralysis.

They may be completely depleted, possibly even burnt out. Burnout is a serious issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes it as a legitimate disease within the International Classification of Diseases (ICD 11).

Depression might also be a factor. They are in a very precarious situation.

And there may be factors outside of work. Personal challenges like family issues, relationship problems, health concerns, financial burdens, or struggles with outside interests can drain someone’s energy. It’s difficult to show up at work with energy when a lot is going on in your personal life.

The Proud - Five Archetypes of Avoidant Personalities in the Office (A heuristic categorization by Coach Takeshi)

Let’s talk about the Proud.

Proud and independent people can also exhibit avoidant behavior in the form of a dismissive “I know, I know” reaction.

You might feel like you’re hitting a wall when you try to offer advice, suggestions, feedback or constructive criticism. They might interrupt and downplay the importance of your feedback with comments like “Okay, okay, big deal.“ Some may abruptly change the topic to avoid further discussion. You might get a verbal agreement like “Sure, sure”, but we sense selective hearing and feigning of agreement – their actions later suggest they’re not following through, subtly sticking to their preferred approach.

Interestingly, these behaviors can be seen as a defense mechanism. Like the sensitive people we discussed earlier, proud and independent individuals might have a deep-seated need to look good and a fear appearing wrong. This perceived threat to their identity can lead them to deflect, reject, or avoid anything that could challenge their self-image.

The Elusive - Five Archetypes of Avoidant Personalities in the Office (A heuristic categorization by Coach Takeshi)

Finally, a special class of avoidant people, I name them the Elusive.

Some people feel entitled to “game the system” – their primary motivation is personal gain, the name of the game is minimizing workload and maximizing benefits. Within an organization, they can be seen as freeloaders.

Shrewd in shirking, that is avoiding, and passing on responsibilities to colleagues, and even worse, taking credit for others’ work. When confronted about their behavior, they feign ignorance and pretend not to know about their responsibilities to avoid consequences. Their toxic behavior is damaging to the moral of the organization.

Five Archetypes of Avoidant Personalities in the Office (A heuristic categorization by Coach Takeshi)

So, how can we approach communication with these avoidant people?

Earlier, I mentioned using Design Thinking to explore this topic. And for those who are familiar with Design Thinking, we use empathy as a discovery tool.

So, let’s use the power of empathy to crack this problem. In fact, I’d like to suggest a turbo-charged empathy exercise!

Three Chairs of Empathy

It’s called the Three Chairs of Empathy exercise. This is my go-to mental model whenever I’m dealing with someone facing a complex challenge and I want to figure out how to help.

If you have a few minutes, I encourage you to try this exercise. It’s powerful, and I think you’ll find it valuable.

The process is simple. First, choose a person you’d like to empathize with and a challenging situation they are facing. For today’s topic, consider a recent encounter in the office with someone showing avoidant behavior.

Take a deep breath and center yourself.

Now, imagine or physically stand up and sit in the first chair.

This first chair represents cognitive empathy. Here, you’ll use your left brain with logic and reason to understand the person’s perspective. What’s going on in their mind? Suspend judgment and assumptions, and try to understand why they behaved the way they did. Take your time and jot down notes.

Next, imagine or physically stand up and move to the second chair.

This chair represents emotional empathy. With your heart, try to feel their emotions and sensations during the avoidant behavior. Again, take your time and take notes.

Finally, imagine or physically stand up and move to the third chair.

The third chair represents compassionate empathy. Now that you have a better understanding of their thoughts and feelings, use your entire self, including your creative right brain, to brainstorm ways to help and support this person. With your mind and heart attuned to them, let your ideas flow out.

By investing attention and care in the first two chairs, rather than jumping straight to solutions, I find this process helpful in finding more comprehensive and effective ways to help people. That’s why this exercise remains a staple in my toolkit.

The Sensitive: Strategies for Effective Communication with Avoidant People – by Archetype

I applied the three chairs of empathy five times to think of some effective communication strategies for each avoidant personality type. And here’s what came out as my findings. Let’s start with the Sensitive people.

For Sensitive people, even being approached can trigger an emotional response. The key here is to make them feel safe. Unsurprisingly, this involves building trust. It may take time and consistent interactions, so focus on fostering a relationship of trust and psychological safety.

Sensitive people appreciate stability and predictability. Suprises stress them. So, start slow and gradual. It’s a relief to them if you respect their pace of communication.

When talking to them, practice active listening. Listen intently to understand their perspective – instead of listening to respond. Validate their feelings by acknowledging and reflecting back what you feel from them.

Keep the communication clear and concise. Avoid overwhelming them with information overload. Short and sweet is good.

There’s no need to be overly cautious or “walk on eggshells” when communicating with Sensitive people. As long as you maintain a sincere and respectful tone, you can be direct.

When assigning tasks, seek their collaboration. Use phrases like “Can I ask for your help with…?” or “Can I involve you in this project?” When providing instructions, offer support and be flexible whenever possible.

If you sense hesitation or a mistake has happened, use positive reframing. Normalize mistakes by saying something like, “Everyone makes mistakes; it’s an opportunity to learn!”

Again, the goal is to build trusting relationships, not transactional ones. Regular check-ins and progressive feedback can be very helpful.

Finally, if you become aware of potential neurodiversity or other special needs, speak with HR and other relevant people so that you can explore ways to accommodate their needs and provide the right support within the organization.

The Developing: Strategies for Effective Communication with Avoidant People – by Archetype

For the Developing, it’s all about psychological safety for learning.

Normalize learning; emphasize that skills development is an integral part of the job.

By framing learning this way, you will give them the safe space to build the confidence, while reducing anxiety from making mistakes.

Closely observe how they handle their work. If they seem to be struggling, adjust the difficulty level and break down tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks. This reduces overwhelm and allows them to focus on achieving smaller goals.

Naturally, you’ll find yourself encouraging them. Do lots and do more: provide positive reinforcement with frequent feedback and recognition.

One very effective support you can arrange is to pair up the Developing with experienced staff.

This also helps the social integration of the Developing people into the team. Go further and actively involve them in the team process, including decision making. This will boost their confidence and sense of belonging, and soon you may see them transition from junior or subordinate members of the team to valued contributors.

The Exhausted: Strategies for Effective Communication with Avoidant People – by Archetype

With the Exhausted, first, just let them vent!

Openly and without interruption, listen to their struggles and acknowledge their state of exhaustion. Avoid judgment and focus on understanding their challenges.

If you’re in a leadership position, offer support by coordinating relief efforts, such as workload rebalancing or delegation. Encourage them to take rest and recharge when possible.

If they are open to it (and remember, never give unsolicited advice – always ask for permission first), you can offer to partner up in helping them prioritize tasks and streamline processes. From messy to simplified, disorganized to organized, that’s a lot of relief.

Why would you want to go to such lengths to help them with relief? Because unless they restore their balance, they won’t have the capacity to properly take on anything new. Understandably, their avoidant behavior is a self-protection mechanism. When they’re better rested and feel like they can manage their workload, the avoidant behavior will naturally decrease, and they’ll be more receptive to new tasks and challenges.

The Proud: Strategies for Effective Communication with Avoidant People – by Archetype

The Proud. Proud people hate to be told what to do and how to do things.

One good way of not triggering them when making a work request is to frame it as an expert challenge that respects their autonomy; for example, “In your opinion, what alternatives ways could we tackle this challenge?”

Set your ego aside and maintain a professional demeanor. With a non-confrontational approach, focus on facts and data, avoiding personal attacks or criticisms. Remember the fundamental attribution error: address actions and behaviors, not perceived character flaws.

Keep the discussion centered on the problem itself. Normalize and depersonalize; separate the issue from their ego to avoid triggering defensiveness.

Pose open-ended questions that encourage reflective thinking and dialogue. Avoid yes/no and this or that questions. “Can you please do this?”, that’s a yes or no question. “Can you do it like this, instead of like that?”, that’s a this or that question. Questions with binary choices of answers are hard to carry on as a dialogue.

As a matter of fact, keep conversations “big”, not just at a high level, but at a level of shared goals and visions. Speaking at the level of aspirations can release serotonin (hormones associated with pride and self-esteem) and oxytocin (hormones associated with social bonding), creating a more positive dialogue. Meanwhile, no single solution can be dictated in a big conversation, so it naturally encourages collaboration.

When interrupted, minimized or dismissed in a conversation, use “pause and redirect”. Calmly acknowledge their point and gently redirect the conversation back to the topic. “I understand your perspective, but can I share more about the potential impact?”

If the behavior persists, set clear boundaries without assigning blame. Request mutually to have the chance to speak and listen without interruption. For instance, “Can we both agree to actively listen and avoid interrupting each other for the next fifteen minutes?”

The Elusive: Strategies for Effective Communication with Avoidant People – by Archetype

Finally, the trouble case, the Elusive people.

The freeloading behavior, it’s costing the people and the organization. The behavior needs to be called out in the form of a direct conversation by a leader or designated representative with the individual. The conversation should outline the negative consequences of their behavior on the team and organization, using specific examples. Focus on the team impact, avoiding personal attacks.

Always give the individual the chance to remedy. Offer to help them develop a plan to address the specific behavioral concerns. Frame the discussion as an opportunity for the individual to learn improved behaviors and strategies for better collaboration. Focus on solutions and improvement, not blame or punishment.

There may be underlying issues contributing to the behavior, such as past experiences or personal challenges. Listen with empathy; understanding their situation and addressing these concerns may lead to solutions.

Make a patient effort at re-integration. However, if these efforts are unsuccessful, escalate the issue through the appropriate internal channels to explore alternative options.

Strategies for Effective Communication with Avoidant People – by Archetype

So that’s my share of strategies for effective communication with avoidant people by their five archetypes. What do you think?

During our dōjō session on this topic, one of the participants made a memorable comment. “Listening to you Coach Takeshi, I noted that many of these things also apply to myself. And not just one but like gravitating and overlapping, between Proud and Exhausted, and I guess Sensitive too.”

So much truth in that. I find myself in these archetypes too – I am also avoidant, admittedly, often.

I guess the meta-learning here is that the effort to understand others is inherently a journey of self-discovery.

We see reflections of ourselves in others. Today our topic was from the angle of avoidance. With deep empathy, let’s continue to learn about others and ourselves.

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