8 ways to better communication

Amended 4/6/11 to repair input attributed to Mr. Fashion-Incubator.

Here’s my latest communication lesson, maybe it’ll help you or you can help me since this entry is really about me (bleh), breaking a major tenet of writing because I should only write about you (sorry). Still, I think these are useful questions to keep in mind when dealing with your customers and vendors.

I was talking to this guy yesterday who was explaining to me how he thought his baby blanket project had to come together.  As is often the case, I patiently explained it wouldn’t work and what he should do instead. Free advice on my dime. He wasn’t hearing me. He wasn’t prepared to listen; first he was preoccupied that he found me listed in an internet directory as a sewer of baby blankets in the Bay Area. Like I had something to do with that (those companies who list you in directories without your consent are beyond annoying which explains why contractors don’t take you seriously if you don’t have a referral). Mr. Fashion-Incubator and I discussed it over dinner because it distresses me that successful, smart and articulate people are often the least likely to listen (smart people are better able to defend their opinions). It’s such a waste of talent and money. He had a few suggestions, he said I should ask callers (and you could ask others and yourselves):

  • What are the odds that your way is wrong? (percentage).
  • What would you have to hear to be convinced you were wrong?

He said if they claimed that their odds of being wrong were 5% or less, I would be wasting my time.  This assesses whether the individual has thought about why they might be wrong, what they might be missing, and whether they’ve considered known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. Abysmal as his assessment was, he’s probably right. Anything higher and I should look for the closest tactful exit from the conversation. So this morning I’m reading Penelope Trunk’s entry on communication and first on her list is:

  • Make sure the person you’re talking to is ready to hear what you’re saying.

A lot of people who call me aren’t ready to hear what I say unless I say what they want to hear. It only makes sense to call them on it from the get go using those first three questions saving time and frustration all around. Come to think of it, asked in a non-confrontational way, I have had people admit they didn’t want my advice on what they should do, they only wanted me to help them make their way work. If I can’t do that, weeding at the outset will reduce my frustration and time spent since I give this kind of advice at no cost (to the caller). Penelope then says:

  • Instead of complaining, ask for what you want in concrete, measurable terms.

This speaks indirectly to Eric’s advice except it invites the caller to itemize what they consider to be their road blocks to progress, none of which are the real problem which they don’t want to hear. I could tell them to read the blog which is something I already do but being firm with context can improve matters and close the conversation if that’s what needs to happen. Penelope continues:

  • Give feedback if expectations aren’t met, even if the effort is good.

I could see that coming in real handy with your service providers. In these cases, I’m not good at providing validation if it’s not genuine. Some people’s ideas make it impossible to pat them on the head, particularly Stone Soup entrepreneurs (usually with patents) who have no viable solutions and coincidentally (not?) are the most convinced of their plan’s superiority. Unfortunately, the ones who most seem to need compliments are those too paranoid to tell you what their idea is. I think it’s disingenuous to encourage people who can be dragged around by their egos because they make poor decisions. The only people who think ideas are novel are those who rarely have them and since much more creativity is needed in execution, it’s an exercise in futility.

  • Take responsibility to make your boundary needs clear.

I need to get to this stage sooner, making it clear I can’t help them if they don’t take the next step (reading the blog, then maybe buying the book). My boundary could be better defined as volleying the responsibility of making the project work back to them. It’s their responsibility, not mine. Penelope closes with:

  • You must keep talking. That’s the only way to make progress.

Obviously I can’t do this in a literal sense because some people could be time wasters if permitted to do so. I wouldn’t think this would work for you either if your boundaries (expectations) are constantly violated by those you hire. I think many start ups don’t understand time or money because they’re working on this in their free time and if you’re available when they are, well, your time must be free too. The most I could possibly hope to make from them is $60 (much less once overhead and product cost is factored) so there’s nothing to gain from long conversations -as every service provider will concur; talking is rarely equivalent to billable hours. I can keep the door open and I do provided they follow through but all I can really do is to keep talking by blogging.

Hopefully you can find ways to use these guidelines to make dramatic improvements in your productivity too.

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14 comments

  1. Amy says:

    Thanks for turning me on to Steve Pavlini and now Penelope Trunk. Her article was SO funny, and both (yours and hers) are good reminders of how to communicate EFFECTIVELY.

  2. Valerie Burner says:

    Then you have the smart people who will argue to the death when you have a good idea…and they will tell you how it is such a bad idea…

    Then three days later, they have that very same idea- and it is now theirs- therefore, it is a really good idea! And you pat them on the back and say nothing…

  3. Eric H says:

    I said that if they claimed that their odds of being wrong were 5% or less, you were wasting your time. The other part was for them to tell you what they would have to hear to be convinced they were wrong.

    I frequently think it’s useful to try to think of why I might be wrong, what I am missing, what are the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. I think the second test (what would convince you of your wrongness) may be a restatement of something Karl Popper, the philosopher of refutability, had said.

  4. The guidelines are not new to me, but they are good.
    If you are interested I have something to add, that worked for me. (I am a psychologist and though I’m not working as a therapist a part of my work used to be convincing people from doing something that was good for them. In the end… whatever you do, the process of counceling is very similar regardless the topic.)

    One truth that can not be overrated is: If someone does not want to listen… just find out as quick as possible not to loose time.

    On the other hand… if someone calls you, comes to see you,… this means that he has at least a small motivation to listen (it may be so small that it is hardly visible, but be sure, it is there) and that means you have something to work with.

    What works best is when people find out themselves that they still have deficits. Instead of telling them what is wrong, make them find out by themselves. Best way to achive that are questions. Ask question, very neutral question, questions, they do not have an answer for. (It took me some time to figure out the “key questions” for my clients, but the better I knew them, the easier my work got.) And that is the moment the client feels a need to listen to you.

    (And of course, ask them, what they want you to do for them. If they don’t have an answer tell them to call back once they know.)

    Another important thing are indeed emotions. I know that theoretically it should be possible to talk objective, accept critique businesslike and so on. Some people are able to do that. But most people can not. Better accept this as a fact. (Sorry… *g*)

    So people need to feel appreciated before they can accept advice. And this means you have to listen first. (Even though you already know 90 % of what he will tell you. And even though the other 10% will be irrelevant.) So your client will have the positive impression that he told you everything he wanted. And that you did listen.
    And yes, you will have to find positive points before you can start criticizing. (Which will be way easier once the client has found out that he needs advice… as mentioned above.)

    Then he is ready to listen to your advice.

  5. dosfashionistas says:

    I think one of the first questions is what the DE considers “success”. What are they wanting to happen.

    I can’t wait to go explore these links. The back trails on your blog are great fun, always!

  6. Clairee Meeks says:

    Kathleen – I’d like to access the forum, and haven’t been able to get in – doesn’t recognize my user name and/or password. I probably have changed my e-mail addy since I bought your book, and not sure I ever registered for the forum, as I’m not in manufacturing, or any commercial endeavor. Just like to keep up with things.
    Can you help me?………….
    Clairee Meeks
    I use the same user name for everything – oldsewandsew – so that should not have changed.

  7. Kathleen says:

    Hi Clairee! You don’t have to be involved in commercial activity to join (just have to have the book like everyone does). Contrary to what many may suppose, enthusiasts enjoy a privileged position in our forum because you represent the consumer who we must keep uppermost in mind in all that we do. While it is helpful when you contribute to our business threads with questions and comments, you are still a full-fledged member entitled to resolution of your own problems. Enthusiasts are never chastised for using home sewing patterns, equipment or methods. Unfortunately we do not discuss sewing very much, which is something you can correct because everyone is intensely interested in the topic.

    Your account was deleted for inactivity, just sign up again but do *read* the membership agreement, many don’t and I always know who has or hasn’t :)

  8. Kathleen says:

    Okay, with everyone’s input, I’ve reorganized these strategies thusly:
    communication with customers

    Intake interview:
    People need to feel appreciated before they can accept advice. The client must have the positive impression that he told you everything he thought was important and that you listened. You will have to find positive points before you can provide constructive criticism.
    * Give feedback if expectations aren’t met, even if the effort is good.

    Problem definition:
    * What do you think is the problem?
    * What could also be wrong that you aren’t sure is a problem?
    * How convinced are you that your way will work? (percentage).

    Toward resolution:
    * What do you want me to do for you?
    * Do you want my advice? Or do you only want me to help you make your way work?
    * What would you have to hear to be convinced the problems are different from what you think?

    Closure:
    * Make boundaries clear, volleying the responsibility of making the project work back to the client. It’s not my project.
    ———————-
    There’s one central problem to the above. The vast majority of callers have a concrete definition of their problem, such as needing to find a “manufacturer”. They think I can resolve their problem in five minutes with a quick perusal of my rolodex. It is insignificant that they don’t want to pay (and most don’t) for information they think I am hoarding for profit (their profit expectation is okay but I’m greedy for wanting to pay my bills?) when this is the greater problem. But they don’t want to listen as to why this matters.

  9. Jen says:

    How would you go about communicating those ideas? Would they be most effective to the vendor and employees due to face to face communication, written document, or with place-based digital signage?

  10. Marie-Christine says:

    I’ve been going through some of the same evaluations about consulting, even if in a different field. I agree with Eric that thinking there’s less than 1% chance their way will work or less is too extreme. Actually to me it’d be a red flag, for total lack of self-confidence.. People who could be open should think there’s 30-50% chance their way will work, imho, otherwise they need to be doing something else, and talk to a shrink about that instead of to you about fixing their low chances. If they think there’s 80% chance their way will work (say >50-66%), then obviously they don’t want your advice, they just want confirmation in their ways, we’re in agreement there. But most people aren’t that articulate or scientific about calculating chances, so you’ll have a hard time finding a response in many cases, although that’ll tell you something as well. For the innumerate you might have a ‘poor’ ‘fair’ or ‘good’ scale? (unless you’re also trying to eliminate them up front)

    It seems to me that what you’re really trying to avoid with this analysis is wasting your time on a potential new client, which is commendable otherwise you’d have every loser in the business (or not) bending your ear about things their way. Yes nowaks’ socratic questions method is obviously the best in terms of people really listening (although some concrete exemples on her part would be more helpful). But the the socratic method takes a lot more time initially for you than the other way, even though it might be more effective in the long term. So actually I think the evaluation part needs to be paid up, for you.

    You might want to say up front you will allow no more than an hour/half hour free initially to whack through the most obvious questions (and stick to that no matter what). You could then want to send them a sheet of questions to think about ahead of time (like your initial 3, or more, or evolve that list over time) and tell them that you’ll consider taking them on only if you can have a formal session to discuss these initial topics. This initial session must be paying for them, and on your side you must firmly stick to your topics (their motivation to change and ability to listen) and not drift into their agenda, you can limit the time of course so you have a clear contract ahead of time, which will be establishing good practice. And then you’ll have a good basis for further discussion without having been totally ripped off. And any consulting relationship you engage in will be much more consensual, and especially they’ll know that you have to be consenting too..

    I’d guess many times just the questioning of people’s willingness to change and ability to listen will be helpful to them, even if they don’t wish to pursue further consulting right at the moment. At least they’ll hear loud and clear that an expert thinks that there are things wrong besides what they think their problems are, and that she thinks they’re not ready to listen. If they’re at all open-minded, that alone should send them down a much better slope. So paying for the initial session won’t be a waste for them, you can feel you’re doing good work. And your time and expertise will eventually be more respected, and meanwhile you will get something out of all those false leads. Even if you never thought to make a living telling people they aren’t ready to listen to you, it can be a useful part of your income :-).

  11. Eric H says:

    Marie-Christine – Actually, I was approaching from the other end. If they thought their chance of being wrong was less than 5%, they are over-confident, cannot be talked out of it, and are basically looking for someone to validate them.

  12. Kathleen says:

    It seems to me that what you’re really trying to avoid with this analysis is wasting your time on a potential new client, which is commendable otherwise you’d have every loser in the business (or not) bending your ear about things their way…You might want to say up front you will allow no more than an hour/half hour free initially to whack through the most obvious questions

    The greatest source of my frustration are those who call me with a fixed agenda (a hammer). They have what they consider to be a singular problem (a nail) that I can easily fix by looking through my rolodex to pull out the name of a sewing contractor or a fabric supplier. Iow, they aren’t looking to hire me at all, they’re looking for referrals. The conflict arises when I explain I don’t give referrals to someone unless I know them.

    Among those who do want to hire me, there’s a mismatch of needs, expectations and what I am prepared to do for them so I didn’t mention this in the discussion. Most in this category are looking for a relationship and guidance but that’s not what I do (outside of the forum or emails) so I recommend them to other colleagues who specialize in it. I’m best utilized as a short term problem solver, I thrive on crisis resolution. I’m at my best working with people who just need a fire put out and I really can’t commit to long term relationships. In fact, most of the people I work with already have pattern makers etc. My role is to solve the problem and provide closure by training their people and the client how to resolve similar problems in the future. Or if they’re the one doing the work, I train them to do it.

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