Great Lessons from Dr. K (Rick Kirschner)


Lessons Learned from Dr. K

“If you have to be right, you’re doing it wrong.” — Dr. Rick Kirschner

When it comes to people skills, Dr. Rick Kirschner, or “Dr.K” as he likes to be called, sets the bar.

Dr. K is the co-author of the best-selling book, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand, and for three decades he has helped advance the field of personal and organizational development.

As an author, speaker, and coach, Dr. K has helped thousands of people turn conflict into cooperation, improve their personal influence and impact, and deal with unwanted communication patterns in their personal and professional lives.

Dr. K is a Master of Interpersonal Communication Skills

Dr. K’s super skill is interpersonal communication, and he specializes in persuasion and influence.

If you haven’t seen Dr. K’s work before, prepare to be amazed.  You’ll wonder where he’s been all your life.

The beauty is that not only has he mastered the domain of interpersonal skills, he’s blazed a trail and has shared his work through many blog posts, and through his information products.

25 Best Lessons from Dr. Kirschner

As you explore Dr. K’s work, one thing to keep in mind is that the time you invest improving your communication skills will pay you back on a daily basis.

It’s one of the simplest, but most effective ways to improve the quality of your life.

As you read his work, you’ll realize not only is Dr. K the real deal, but he’s a nice guy, and he genuinely likes to see people succeed.

Here are 25 lessons learned from Dr. K you can instantly use to improve your communication skills:

1. Persuasion is like magic.

When you don’t know how it’s done, it creates a sense of wonder.

It’s like magic.  Once you know how it’s done, it loses some of the wonder.

However, you can shift focus to mastering the techniques and enjoying the process.

2. Know the three steps to persuasion.

According to Dr. K, there are three steps to persuasion:

  1. Meet people where they are
  2. First understand them
  3. Then speak to their needs, interests and motivations.

3. Focus on behavior over personality types.

Rather than focus on personality types or personality profiling, focus on context and behaviors, and remember that people change their behaviors based on the situation or context they are in.

Dr. K says, “My approach is behavior based rather than personality based, in that it is based on the useful assumption that a person’s needs (and thus, style of communicating) change depending on the context (time of day, location, who they are interacting with, what they want or don’t want, etc.)

Sometimes more extroverted, sometimes more introverted. Sometimes more direct, sometimes more indirect.”

4. Recognize a person’s needs-style: “task focus” vs. “people focus.”

You can improve your ability to influence if you blend your behavior with a person’s needs-style.

To understand a person’s needs-style, you need to listen to what a person talks about and how directly they talk about it.

When a person is “task-focused,” they talk about what they are doing.

When a person is “people focused”, they will talk more about the people around them or their feelings about the situation.

Dr. K says, “A person focused more on a task than on people may pay more attention to the end result of the task than the details they encounter along the way.

… A person focused more on people than on a task may express more interest in the opinions and feelings of others, or in their own opinions and feelings.”

5. Recognize the four communication needs: action, accuracy, approval and appreciation.

According to Dr. K, there are four basic intents or communication needs:

  1. action
  2. accuracy
  3. approval
  4. appreciation

You’ll recognize the need for action when a person is focused on the end result of an interaction or an idea.

You’ll recognize a person has a need for accuracy when a person is indirect and focused on the details of an interaction or an idea.

You’ll recognize the need for approval when a person speaks indirectly and expresses concern for the opinions and feelings of others.

You’ll recognize a need for appreciation when a person is focused more on her own thoughts and feelings than the thoughts and feelings of others.

Remember that behavior keeps changing so you’ll need to keep paying attention in order to notice the change.

6. Speak to the four communication needs.

Once you recognize which of the four communication needs somebody is speaking with (action, accuracy, approval, or appreciation), you can speak to the need.

To speak to action, get to the point (“cut to the chase”.)  This might include being commanding or authoritative.

To speak to accuracy, speak indirectly and give the details (go “step-by-step”)   This might include asking questions or making long statements to establish facts or stimulate thinking.

To speak to approval, speak in a friendly, indirect, and considerate way (use relationship language, like ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘you and me’, and ‘the team’.)

To speak to appreciation, speak directly, with energy and enthusiasm (create a spotlight effect.)

7. Blend your behavior to improve rapport.

Blending is one of the simplest things you can do to improve your communication effectiveness.

Dr. K recommends blending your behavior to reduce differences and send signals of similarity.

You can blend with your body by matching body posture and facial expressions or you can blend with your voice by matching tone, volume, tempo, etc.

You can also blend by matching somebody’s communication needs.

8. Know what you want.

There are multiple ways to achieve what you want.  In order to stay flexible in your approach, you need to first figure out what you want to accomplish.

This is especially true when it comes to communication and persuasion.

Dr. K says, “That’s why the challenge in life, and in communication specifically, is to define a direction, and organize yourself around that outcome.  Y

ou need to know what you are aiming towards, what you intend to achieve, and why you intend to achieve it, or you just keep cycling back to the easy stuff, the complaints, problems, and obstacles that you can’t seem to avoid.”

9. Assumptions create self-fulfilling prophecies.

When you make assumptions, it’s usually easy to find evidence that supports you assumption because the blinders are on.

The key is to recognize that you have assumptions and test them.

Dr. K says, “Once you make an assumption (about yourself, about others, about situations, etc.) you inevitably will act as if your assumption is true.

And your actions will have effects, in that you will find evidence in order to have the experience that your assumption is true.“

10. Make useful assumptions rather than limiting ones.

Assumptions help us deal with overload and help us avoid being overwhelmed.  Knowing that we make and use assumptions every day, make useful assumptions over limiting ones.

According to Dr. K, “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.

A limiting assumption holds you back, ties you down, and traps you into self-defeating and counterproductive behavior.”

11. Assume positive intent.

One useful assumption is assuming positive intent.  If you assume the worst in people, you’ll bring out the worst.  If you treat somebody like a jerk, chances are they’ll act like a jerk.

Instead, expect the best and improve the chances that you’ll get their best behavior, at least when dealing with you.

Dr. K says, “…people do what they do for a good reason.  Even the worst behaviors serve a purpose the person considers a good one.

People engage in behaviors based on their intent, and do what they do based on what seems to be most important in any given moment.”

12. Start with your points then find supporting data.

When you need to persuade, don’t throw a bunch of numbers at people.  Make your point, then back it up with data.

Don’t  make people fish through the numbers to try and figure out what your point might be.

13. Appeal to logical listeners using facts and figures.

When you’re persuading logical listeners, facts, data, and statistics can be effective.

It’s effective because they are making decisions based on reason and they are making sense of the data you present to support your argument.

To be effective, make sure your facts and figures are easy to understand.

14. Appeal to emotional listeners using vivid language.

When you’re persuading emotional listeners, they will likely tune out facts and figures unless it’s interesting or shocking insight.

For emotional listeners, use examples, metaphors, and vivid imagery to be more effective.

15. Add persuasion signals to increase your persuasive power.

Persuasion Signals are “signals” or short-cuts for the listener on how to act.

While a logical thinker will be looking for facts and details, an emotional thinker is looking for shortcuts and signals about the worth and meaning of an idea.

According to Dr. K, there are seven persuasion signals to draw from:

  1. The Signal of Affinity
  2. The Signal of Comparison
  3. The Signal of Conformity
  4. The Signal of Reciprocity
  5. The Signal of Authority
  6. The Signal of Consistency
  7. The Signal of Scarcity

16. Know the ten types of difficult people.

Dr. K and team identify 10 types of difficult people in the Dealing with People You Can’t Stand.

The ten types of difficult people are:

  1. Grenade Person
  2. Know-It-All
  3. Maybe Person
  4. No Person
  5. Nothing Person
  6. Sniper
  7. Tank
  8. Think-They-Know-It-All
  9. Whiners
  10. Yes Person

The types are actually names of behaviors and you can use the types as a lens to understand both yourself and the behavior of other people.

17. Shared values hold you together.

“I believe the most powerful common ground in relationships is that of shared values.

If you and another person believe or think the same kinds of things and experiences are important, you’ll be able to work together to problem solve and share the positive results after.

If you deem the same things to be the important things, when divisions arise, your shared values will hold you together.”

18. Build relationships on common ground.

According to Dr. K, the key to long-term relationships is building on common ground.

Dr. K says, “Couples who build their relationships on the common ground of values can survive all kinds of life cycle events, even thrive, in spite of the differences that inevitably arise.

But couples that lack shared values are likely doomed, regardless of how much else they have in common, to fight over and eventually move away from each other because of the lack of this basic bond.”

19. Blend with behavior when values are different.

When you’re faced with a conflict of values, one of the best ways to stay connected is to blend with behavior, since clearly you aren’t connecting at the values.

Dr. K says,“That’s where we send signals to others that we are on the same side. Since we people are more alike than different anyway, finding common ground ought to be a fairly simple proposition.

Yet most people find it incredibly hard to do when their attention is on the differences that divide us one from another.

That’s why the idea of blending is to move to common ground as quickly as possible.”

20. When somebody decides not to help, find somebody else.

Sometimes in customer service, you might find somebody who has already decided not to help.

In those cases, see if you can escalate or find somebody else to talk to that might empathize with you.

21. Focus on logical consequences over punitive responses.

Rather than punish people after the fact, give them a way to succeed up front, by setting expectations up front.

Make the path and consequences as clear as you can.

According to Dr.K, “Logical consequences, on the other hand, are imposed results.  If you do X, I’ll do Y.

If you do A, I’ll do B.

When you tell a child, or a person acting like a child, what they can expect as a result of their actions, you are telling them about a consequence of their action.

If you then do what you say you will do, they learn to respect your word about those consequences.

This is very different than a punitive response to something you don’t like, which has the form of, “Because you did X, I’m going to do Y.”

The problem with punitive reactions is they don’t provide people with an opportunity to change.

They do, however, give people a reason to resent you, rebel against you, and polarize the situation against you further.”

22. Free up your inner-change artist with “What if?” and “What, then?” questions.

Dr. K says, “What matters is, where do you want to go, and what is one small step forward that you can take in order to get there.

To create positive change.

And the beauty of life is there is always a next step.

How is it possible to find that small step forward?

Well, change artists do it by asking themselves ‘What if? and ‘What, then?’ questions.”

23. Backtrack before asking questions.

Backtracking is simply echoing back what you heard.  This shows that you’re listening and that you care.

Backtracking helps you build trust and it helps the other person feel heard.

By backtracking before you ask questions, it shows that you are fully engaged and attempting to clarify and understand.

This also gives the other person a chance to correct you to make sure you’ve heard something the way they intend.

This sets the stage for asking more effective questions, while staying connected.

24. Ask what behavior would you replace it with?

Rather than focus on what you don’t want somebody to do, focus on what you would like them to do instead.

Dr. K says, “Remember, nature hates a vacuum and you cannot replace something with nothing.

That makes it more difficult to create positive change for you and for your organization.

If you don’t want him to do what he’s doing, what behavior would you him to replace it with?.”

25. Expand the scope of your input.

If you only listen or watch or pay attention to what you already know, then you limit your world.

Expand your horizons by taking in input from a variety sources outside your comfort zone.

Dr. K says, “Change the stations, read watch or listen to something that you disagree with. Challenge your views in order to gain access to information that exists outside of your comfort zone.

This way you can expand the scope of your input.

You can bring into your awareness other options, other interpretations and possibilities.

These other possibilities provide you with what you need to better understand your world and give you sufficient information to influence it for the better.”

These lessons are just a tip of the iceberg.

Dr. K is a true wealth of pragmatic insight you can apply in work and life.

Kirschner’s Motivational Model

One of the ways to make sense of what you see is to use a lens.  Dr. K has a lens for understanding people’s drivers and motivations.

It’s Kirschner’s Motivational Model:

Motivational Set Toward Away
Values Right wrong
Reward Gain Lose
Challenge Success Failure
Esteem Worth Worthless
Fulfillment Purpose Emptiness
Other Pleasure Pain

Dr. K’s motivational model is a set of six motivational sets.

Each set is a spectrum of what we move toward, and what we move away from.

According to Dr. K, our drivers are a blend of the motivational sets above, and our motivations are ultimately contextual and depend on what we’re doing and who we’re with.

Quotes  by Dr. K

Dr. K has a great way of sharing insight in the form of pithy prose.  Here is a handful of some of his quotable quotes:

“A good model allows us to do things, try things, organize our perceptions to find out useful and interesting things. And the cool thing about a model is that it doesn’t have to be true, it just has to work.”

“Change artists start with the really big What If’s, and work their way back to the details of their own lives.”

“Change is inevitable, but progress is not.”

“Change your mind. Change your life. Change your world.”

“Don’t get mad. Get smart!”

“Every question, every statement, has a consequence and in this way you can and do shape the thoughts of others. You always have an impact!”

“Every time you ask a question or make a statement to someone, you are participating in his or her thought process.”

“First, change your attitude, and then change your behavior.  To change your attitude, and thus stop suffering, you must learn to look, think and feel differently about difficult behavior.”

“Flexibility means having more than one choice, and getting feedback instead of failure.”

“How are you going to change what you’re doing in the present in order to get that different outcome in the future?”

“I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, ‘Think outside the box.” Here’s my version of that. ‘Don’t get in the box in the first place.'”

“If all you know is what you don’t want, you will get more of it.”

“If there’s going to be a future worth living in, I think you will find more than enough agreement from most everybody that much needs to change.”

“If you don’t want ‘that’, what do you want?”

“In your life, think of the opportunities squandered, the resources wasted, and the money and income lost because the right person at the right time lacked the persuasive skill to persuade the key people to take the necessary actions.”

“It’s based on my observation that  people do what they do for a good reason.  Even the worst behaviors serve a purpose the person considers a good one.”

“Just as people choose what to wear from a variety of clothing styles (such as formal-wear, office-wear, or weekend-wear), so people choose from a variety of behaviors that are situational dependent.”

“Not all situations are resolvable.  And some are just not worth it.  Cutting your losses remains a viable option when dealing with difficult behavior.”

“Persuasion finds it’s power in meeting people where they are and then engaging them in such a way that they move with you when you move forward.”

“Recognize that fear is as irrational as it is necessary, and perhaps wisdom is learning the difference  about when to act on it versus when to act in spite of it.”

“Sometimes, that means you must accept the unacceptable, in order to move with it and take charge over it. Only then can you redirect whatever is aimed at you towards your desired result.”

“What if anything is possible, and all that’s required of any of us is to be true to ourselves and find our next small step forward?”

“Why more than one choice?  Because if you only know one way to do something, you’ll always have to do it, even if it doesn’t work!”

“You cannot not influence people.”

“You’ve got to know how to protect yourself from unscrupulous people with hidden agendas who use ignorance and emotion to bring about negative ends.”

Catalog of Dr. K’s Resources (Sites, Books, Videos)

Dr. K has a wide range of resources, from blog posts to books.  For simple scanning, I organized Dr. K’s collection of resources into the following buckets: key links, audio, books, eBooks, ten-minute tune ups, videos, and popular posts.

Category Items
Key Links
  • Insider’s Guide to the Art of Persuasion
  • Insider’s Playbook Paperback
  • Love Thy Customer
  • Mighty Manager: Dealing with Difficult People
  • Dealing with Relative’s
  • Insider’s Guide To The Art of Persuasion
  • Insider’s Playbook
  • Life By Design eBook
Ten-Minute Tune Ups
  • Do Overs and Second Chances
  • Tune Up Your Motivation
  • Break the Chains of Reaction
  • Tune Up Your Trust Building
  • Tune Up Your Listening Skills
  • Tune Up Your Attitude
  • Deal with Opposition
  • Build Your Motivation (part 1)
  • Build your Motivation (part 2)

If you happen to have a story or lesson on how Dr. K made an impact on you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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  1. J. D. This is an incredibly rich chunk of information from Dr. K. I’m awed. I’m still at 4,5, and 6 related to needs style and communication needs. I could study this post for quite some time. Thank you.

  2. WOW J.D.,

    What an awesome post (again). I like how the information you’ve provided here can help anyone in their life; from work, to parenting, to relationships.

    The one statement from Dr. K that resonated with me is, “Every time you ask a question or make a statement to someone, you are participating in his or her thought process.” This reminds me of how what we say, especially to children, can affect them for a long time. All the more reason to choose our words carefully.

    Thank you for another bookmarkable post J.D.

  3. J.D. Wow…that post is great and filled with all sorts of helpful information. I haven’t read Dr. K’s book, but it sounds like it is a good read and very helpful. I couldn’t agree more that we all need to have a good approach for dealing with other people and managing through challenging interactions. Thanks for all the helpful information. This is definitely a post worth bookmarking.

  4. Hi J.D, no one knows a topic quite like you. You always inspire me with the length and depth of your posts. Everyone wants to know how to perusade people and there are some fab tips here. Most of all I think really listening to people and modeling and reflecting them in every way. The one biggest lesson I’ve learnt from personal experience about trying to persuade difficult people is actually don’t bother. As soon as you notice they’re difficult bail out and find someone more pleasant to hang out with:) It took me years to learn this, I wish I’d known it sooner!

  5. Wow JD,

    I read this book years ago and yet reading your post it all seemed new. Just goes to show how much (meaning little!) I’ve internalised his lessons.

    Your post was so well written and so thorough that after the first two paragraphs I printed out the whole post to glue into my journal to reflect and put the points into practice slowly over the next few weeks (I hope at least!)

    Thanks for this, JD. Excellent work!

  6. Hi JD
    I notice that lots of people have said this in their comment, but I’m going to say it anyway…WOW! Must have taken you ages to put this post together.

    One of my favourite sayings on the art of persuasion is…
    “If all you have in life is a hammer… everything in life looks like a nail.”
    Guess it means that we need more than one strategy for persuasion or anything else for that matter.

  7. Hi JD. How many books do you read a week? This guy sounds awesome and I will definitely be checking him out. I totally agree on the need to have shared values – things can get very uncomfortable if you don’t.

    My ex husband and I didn’t share the same values and doesn’t seem to matter so much when you’re young – but when you get older it makes a huge difference.

  8. Holy cow!

    I’ve been waiting for your next post and this it outta the park!!

    The one about focusing on behaviors over personality “types” should be on every human’s communicative skills list. It’s all about not labeling the person but working on the behavior, indeed!

    Stellar work here.


  9. Very impressive list of topics and information. I’ve read a couple of Dr. K’s books, but you have spiked my interest. We can never learn enough about how to communicate and work with other people. Thanks.

  10. This is an amazing introduction to Dr. K for me and I definitely want more of his work. I so like to improve my communications skills and this post is a remarkable resource for doing just that.

    Thank you – I think a great deal of effort went into this post and I am sure it is valuable to your work.

    Thank you very much.

  11. @ Sandra — Thank you. I tried to make this post a tour guide and a map so that you could explore and dive deep.

    @ Barbara — Thank you. A little bit of Dr. K goes such a long way. That is an incredibly insightful quote and, as you say, a perfect reminder how what we say can impact others.

    @ Sibyl — Thank you. I have to warn you — once you start reading Dr.K, it’s tough to stop. He nails so many of the tough issues in life with skill.

    @ Annabel — Thank you. My ultimate test for my posts is whether they solve a problem or share a chunk of insight, or in this case, create a map of insights (a hub and spoke model.) I like your point on spending less time with difficult people and it is a definite way to avoid having your life force sucked out.

    @ Daphne — Thank you. I think his lessons sink in more over time. They truly are acquired skills. I do like how his lenses are fast to apply with immediate results. I continuously try to add his tools to my toolbox.

  12. @ Keith — Thank you! Yes, this post did take me quite a bit of effort and a few iterations.

    I’m a fan of filling my quiver with multiple strategies to stay flexible, and Dr. K’s quote is a perfect way of saying it.

    @ Cath — For too many months in a row, I was spending $300 a month on books. That’s pretty bad. I still haven’t caught up to my bookshelf, but I am closing the gap 😉

    Dr. K is the man and his insights on interpersonal skills are life changing.

    @ Jannie — Thank you! I’ve been slacking for the Summer, but I thought it was time to share Dr. K in a deep way so that everybody could benefit from his amazing book of know-how. There is something powerful and empowering about focusing on behaviors over labels.

    @ Mary — Thank you. I find that each time I read through or listen to Dr. K, I get a new wrinkle in my brain.

    @ Patricia — Thank you. Studying Dr. K is like studying a master martial artist. You know that you’re on a path that is rewarding along the way, and yet the road just gets better as you go, while your skills grow with you.

  13. I have never hear about Dr. Kirschner Before, Thanks JD for sharing. I’m still wonder if interpersonal skills is something is something we learn/teach.

  14. I really learnt a lot from this post, thank you. I was struck by idea that a hierarchy of strategies was emerging:
    Shared values
    Blending behaviour
    Have you tried to develop this as a theme parallel to Maswell’s hierarchy?

  15. @ Dror — Dr. K takes it deep. To test drive interpersonal skills, I think the needs styles are one of the simplest ways to get results. First, identify your own needs in a given situation — are you listening to hear action? … are you listening to hear accuracy? … are you listening to hear appreciation? … are you listening to hear approval? Once you recognize your own needs, you’ll start to recognize these same needs with others. Then you can test answering somebody looking for action, with action, or looking for accuracy, with accuracy, etc.

    @ Hugh — I think there are always parallels to Maslow’s hierarchy. I think the real key is applying the right strategy or tactic based on the context or situation. Situations have a big impact on behavior.

  16. This is fantastic, JD!

    The 3 steps to persuasion, the 4 communication needs, assumptions lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, and so much more. Light bulbs were turning on all over the place. You share a lot of value with your readers. Thanks!

  17. @ Davina — Thank you! Dr. K is really incredible. When I think of standing on the shoulders of giants, he’s one of the giants.

  18. I have a client who also does interpersonal communication work. There’s something about these people – a sense of calm when facing others – that I really admire.

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