If You Don’t Get Them on the Swings, Get Them on the Merry-Go-Round: The Platinum Rule of Communication
Gerald Rosen, a Contracts professor at Loyola Law School used to say “if you can’t get them on the swings, get them on the merry-go-round; if you can’t get them on the merry-go-round, get them on the slide; if you can get them on the slide, get them on the monkey bars.” Having heard those words lo these many years ago, I haven’t a clue as to what contracts matter he was referring to. Nonetheless, those evocative childhood images of a day at the park persisted and remained with me.
I’ve come to realize that his admonition had little to do with traditional contracts (as in the quid pro quo/this-for-that barter world in which we live) and everything to do with communication.
Some of us take in information by listening. Some of us take in information by engaging in dialogue. Others take in information by reading. Some of us hear first, and then need something in writing as a follow-up. There are multiple ways in which to take in and impart information. There is no right way or wrong way, there are merely a multitude of ways. The trick is to ferret out the best way to communicate with the person the communicator is trying to communicate with!
This is especially true in the chaotic times in which we live, punctuated by false information and fear of others, while at the same time maneuvering through an increasingly smaller world peopled by a multiplicity of cultures, languages, differing norms and notions of what is “right” and what is “wrong.”
Following the Platinum Rule of Communication
Many of us follow what I’ll call the “Golden Rule” of communication, meaning, we communicate with others the way we want to be communicated with. Although a well-meaning and good-intentioned way to operate, it assumes the receiver will respond as we would. How about practicing the “Platinum Rule” of communication, or communicating with another the way she or he best receives information?
I am one of those who “gets it,” when someone tells me something, and I quickly check for understanding. There are many, who need verbal communication followed up with writing, or, better yet, some who would prefer that the verbal communication be skipped entirely, and prefer a quick email or text.
The How To’s to Find the Best Way to Communicate
1. Ask What the Person Prefers
Some can tell you how they like information transmitted to them, though this is typically no more than 20 – 30%.
2. Observe How They Take in Information
Become a keen observer of others. When participating in a meeting – particularly when conducting one – look for signs of understanding: nodding of heads, relaxed, even smiling faces (as opposed to crinkled brows and quizzical looks), and take note of the eager beavers who immediately provide feedback through participation, and how others respond to them.
3. Check for Understanding – in a Group
Ask for volunteers to replay what was said or asked. Many adults feel that seeking understanding from others is demeaning if asked “who wants to repeat what I just said?”
Trained facilitators find when leading a group, and having communicated the same information in multiple methods and modes, (employing the “if you can’t get them on the merry-go-round, get them on the swings; if you can get them on the swings, get them on the slide, etc.,”) and they continue to see few nodding heads and more quizzical expressions a facilitator’s response can be “I think I just confused myself. Who thinks he or she understands what I was trying to say and can put it in his or her own words?” Works every time.
4. Check for Understanding – in a One-on-One
As leaders, typically a one-on-one involves giving an assignment or providing constructive feedback. In either case, it is critical that the recipient of the communication gets it. After all, the communicator wants the recipient to understand, act, or do what the communicator asked. Thus, after engaging in dialogue, concluding with, “it’s important to me that I was clear in what I said, so do me a favor, send me an email summarizing what we talked about (or what I said, or what we agreed to, etc.).”
If the person doesn’t repeat the essence of what the communication was about, follow up with “I’m sorry, I guess I wasn’t very clear, let me try it again.”
5. Try Various Methods and Modes to Determine the Best Way to Communicate
Try communicating verbally, in writing, by e-mail, and by text, and be sure to follow up. Always conclude by asking “what questions do you have?” Posing the question this way, versus the standard “do you have any questions?” creates an environment where questions are expected and natural, and removes the perception that anyone who has a question was “not paying attention, dumb or stupid.” After all, the goal is to get the recipient to understand and then do what was asked.
Communication can be direct and straightforward, which often entails using the “w” words: “what do you think; what would you like me to do; what’s your answer,” or “why should we do it that way; why her and not me; or, why not do it this way,” or “which direction should we take?”
Alternatively, communication can be indirect yet still fulsome. This often entails using the “h” word, “how might that work?”
The trick is to figure out if the listener will respond better to the direct or indirect method.
For more information on The Platinum Rule of Communication, or other helpful communication types, check out my book Consequential Communication in Turbulent Times, a Practical Guide to Leadership.