Throughout American culture—but perhaps most pointedly in our business culture—there is an unwritten rule: “Thou shalt not admit any mistake nor show any weakness nor ever be caught without a good answer.”
And it’s not always about covering up, dissembling, blaming, distorting, etc. Sometimes other communication errors occur in subtle ways that can cost a lot of time and money.
Example: Jane asks Dick to prepare data needed for a client presentation. She assumes Dick knows exactly what she needs because they have done this kind of thing before. When she asks if he can handle it, he says: “Sure, no problem.”
She is also not specific about when she needs it. Dick walks away with his own unverified assumptions about what he is to prepare and by when.
One day before she needs the data, Jane asks Dick how it’s going. He says, “Oh, I haven’t started yet. I didn’t think you needed it until next week.” Jane is frustrated and Dick stays late to pull the data together—at the cost of missing an important event he had set up with his wife. When he delivers the data, it is missing some crucial pieces related specifically to the client’s needs. Jane is again frustrated and she and Dick, in emergency mode, scramble to get the data and presentation together in time for the meeting.
Results: a) Breakdown in trust between Jane and Dick which carries consequences for their future working relationship; b) Very possibly a report/presentation that is substandard from the client’s point of view and damages the company to company relationship.
This is all avoidable. There is a very simple and straightforward conversational technology that, if implemented and practiced diligently, will guarantee that this sort of thing will not happen.
Let’s start with making a good request.
A good request has two elements: a clearly articulated result that both parties understand and a time by when it will be produced. In business we’re pretty good at the first part and downright lousy at the second. Almost no one wants to be pinned down to a timeline—this leaves us no wiggle room in case we pull up short on our end.
But let’s assume that the request is well made and both parties are clear about what is to be produced and by when. Now the fun begins.
The four authentic responses to a request are:
1) Yes, I will do it as prescribed within the agreed upon timeline;
2) No, I will not do it;
3) I cannot deliver it as you have requested. Can we negotiate? (make a counter offer);
4) I don’t have enough information at hand to make an authentic promise. Can I get back to you by noon tomorrow? (Promise to promise).
That’s it. Any other response to a request, in the words of the brilliant man who taught me all about this, is “buulcheet” (heavy South American accent).
The most difficult of all these responses is—you guessed it—is “no.” If we said, “no,” we might look bad or as if we don’t know. Here the connection between having to know and never saying “no” come together to produce untold amounts of lost time, money, energy and an abundance of frustration and lost trust.
Admitting we don’t know or telling someone (particularly our boss) “No, I cannot promise that” should be invitations to have a deeper conversation. “Great, what is it that you don’t understand? How can I help?” or, “Can we look at your current work load and see what’s going on there that you don’t feel you can make a promise?”
Those would be very useful conversations to have and they ought to take place much more often than they do.
Some interesting tricks of the trade that make requests and promises clearer and more compelling to use properly:
1) Both the person making the request and the person making the promise are 100 percent responsible for the outcome. If someone doesn’t keep a promise they made to you, the first place to look is what happened when you made the request. Were you open to the possibility of anything other than “Yes?” Did you accept a promise from someone knowing there was a good chance they might not have the time or expertise to carry it out? Broken promises usually exist as excuses for us to bludgeon those we manage rather than dig underneath for the root cause.
2) If you no longer need something you requested, let the promisor know right away. Chances are you will save them time and trouble and build some trust. Likewise, if you cannot produce a result as promised, get back to the requestor right away so the two of you can negotiate a new promise or find some other way to produce the desired result.
There is an ancient Chinese proverb: “If you continue in the direction you are headed, you are likely to end up where you are going.” If we want to become more efficient and productive in the workplace, look no further than how we are making requests and promises. They will tell us where we are headed—perhaps in time to not end up there.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Alan Cleaver/Flickr