Workplace Wisdom

How to Make a Small Tweak in Communication for a Surprisingly Big Change

When I interviewed a group of highly experienced technical employees at a client company last week, one of the things I asked them was what consistently made them nuts on the job. They told me about daily frustrations that ranged from software problems to the challenges of trying to do deep, creative thinking in the distracting open-office setup — all of which were straightforward, reasonable concerns.

And then one observably upbeat and seemingly unflappable fellow shook his head a little, and said he hated it when internal customers would ask, “Can’t you just…” and everyone in the room agreed. Vociferously.

The Customer Doesn’t Always Understand

Lots of knowledge-based, technically-skilled creative work is meant to fill a need that hasn’t been fully expressed yet, because it hasn’t been clearly or completely conceived. Customers often don’t understand what it takes to modify a design, even by tiny increments. A change that seems small to the customer who wants to “just see if that’s better” can take hours of intense concentration and aggravation, whether it’s part of web design, TV production, or new technical instrumentation.

Customer comments ranging from “I’ll know when I see it” to “No, you didn’t get what I meant” can cause creatives to question themselves. And creatives’ doubt and stress can become even more severe when customers sound as if the reason for their dissatisfaction is due to incomplete or inaccurate execution on the provider’s part.

There are many fields in which outputs are necessarily the result of collaboration. But some customers are demanding and act entitled, as if the creative partner is merely a delivery mechanism and the need for additional iterations is a trivial thing. That can make it feel harder than necessary to do the required work — and if the dynamic persists, it can trigger unnecessary resistance from beleaguered providers.

When one side of the collaboration doesn’t have personal experience or solid awareness of the other side’s roles, responsibilities, and rigors, they may assume it’s perfectly easy and “really no big deal” to make a change. Ironically, because of the human cognitive bias of fundamental attribution error, the very same people who are making the demands would probably feel resentful and put upon if the situation were reversed.

The Telling Nature of Language and Tone

During our discussion, the group made clear that what really upset them wasn’t so much the multiple requests as it was the way in which the requests were made, which suggested a lack of both respect and collegiality.

The language “Can’t you just…” implies that the request was a minor thing, and suggests that the provider is intentionally withholding support and being difficult. The tone that accompanies “Can’t you just…” conveys a kind of exhausted, resentful begging, as if the phrase would end with “…do it for me this one time?” or “…get off your high horse and take care of this thing I so desperately need?”

From what the group told me, it sounded almost as if the customers assumed the providers were being purposefully unhelpful and throwing up arbitrary roadblocks — quite insulting to people who are trying to be helpful! The group suggested that customers try using more respectful language, like “Would you please…” and “Is it possible…”

Those shifts in language could certainly help the situation, even though, as I reminded the group, the first line of defense in relationship is not, in fact, the language. It’s to ensure that the collaborators actually understand and have confidence in each other. One of the best approaches to making that happen is to recognize in a deep way what the other side experiences and needs.

After all, it’s possible that the customers are exerting pressure because they think they’re hearing something like “What do you want that for?” or “You don’t really need it done again” — whether in either language or tone.

Onward and upward,

LK

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