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.