The late, great Gerald Rosen, a contracts professor at Loyola Law School, used to say, “If you can’t get them on the merry-go-round, get them on the swings; if you can’t get them on the swings, get them on the slide; if you can’t get them on the slide, get them on the monkey bars.”
Having heard those words many years ago, I haven’t a clue as to what contracts principle he was referring. I’ve come to realize that his admonition had little to do with traditional quid pro quo contracts and everything to do with communication. Some of us take in information by listening. Some of us take in information by engaging in the dialogue. Some of us take in information by reading. Some of us hear first and then need follow-up in writing.
There are multiple ways in which to give and receive information. There is no right way or wrong way, there are merely many ways. The trick is to ferret out the best way to communicate with the person the communicator is trying to communicate with!
The how-to: Most of us practice the “golden rule” of communication, meaning we communicate with others the way we want to be communicated with. If we practice the “platinum rule” of communication — communicating with others the way they want to be communicated with — our chances of success increase exponentially.
Tips to figure it out
- Ask. Some of us know our preferred style
- Observe. Try different styles with team members and see what nets the best results
- Confirm. Try a method, say giving a direction verbally, and then follow up with, “Johnna, I want to make sure I gave you the full picture. Please send me an email confirming what I’ve asked of you.”
- Accept responsibility, never blame the recipient. If Johnna forgot a point or two, come back with “Oops, I goofed, please add x, y. or z to the list.”
A story: Felicity and Jasmine volunteer for a national women’s association committed to doing good works. They agreed to co-chair the annual fundraiser.
Felicity took in communication by hearing it the first time. She didn’t need the information repeated, and when someone did, felt like “Who does she think I am? I’m not an idiot, why is she repeating herself?”
If she occasionally got it wrong, it was no big deal.
Jasmine took in information by listening to it carefully, and then reading follow-up notes: She wanted to ensure she “got it right” and didn’t feel comfortable relying upon information the first time she heard it.
Practicing the “golden rule” of communication, each communicated how she wanted to be communicated with. Felicity would say something once to Jasmine, never repeat herself and expect that Jasmine would get it. Jasmine, on the other hand, left each meeting, made meticulous notes and sent them to Felicity.
Each was upset. Felicity confronted Jasmine. “Why do you keep sending me follow-up notes? Don’t you think I get it the first time?”
For her part, Jasmine was upset that Felicity never followed up with notes, thinking Felicity wouldn’t follow up on what was agreed upon.
Both were well-meaning and good-intentioned (aren’t we all?) and simply communicated with the other the way each wanted to be communicated with.
What if … At the beginning of the partnership, the two had a brief conversation along the lines of, “What’s the best way for us to stay in touch and to confirm what we’ve agreed to?”
Felicity could have said, “For me, I’m fine with just discussing what we’ll do once. I’ll remember what I agreed to and do it. You can count on me.”
Jasmine could have said, “I work best with follow-up notes. I have an idea. After we meet and decide what will happen next, I’ll go ahead and write notes so I can reference them. If you ever need them, let me know.”
That short conversation would have set the agreed-to communication ground rules, avoided hurt feelings and anger, and both could have focused attention on what they had in common: raising money to enable the organization to fund community programs.
Tips for practicing the platinum rule
- Determine how best the recipient will understand the communication: ask how the recipient likes to receive information, observe, and/or try different methods and modes
- Check for understanding
- Flex your style to meet others’ needs
Conclusion: If you can’t get them on the merry-go-round, get them on the swings!
Diana Peterson-More, employment lawyer, corporate officer and consultant left a Fortune 200 to launch Organizational Effectiveness Group LLC. Her company focuses on aligning people with organizational purpose and strategy. She is the best-selling author of “Consequential Communication in Turbulent Times” and is a sought-after coach, facilitator and speaker.