When we tell people the “right” way to do things, we’re unlikely to get the help we need. Instead we can choose to show people how working with us can meet their needs.
To build digital products and services we need help from other people. For example, we might need to work with members of our immediate team, colleagues from different departments, or managers. A common way to ask for this help is to tell people what we think the “right” way to do something is. For example, we might try to persuade people to adopt our methodology by saying something like:
- “bad user experience will harm the product”
- “agile methods produce better software”
- “quality content is important”
These statements are moralistic judgements: good/bad, right/wrong, should/shouldn’t. They appeal to what psychologists call “extrinsic motivation”, ie motivation based on punishment or reward. Although we might intend these statements to be requests, people tend to hear them as demands:
We think we’re saying: “I would like you to consider using agile methods to manage this project”
They hear: “I know best. Do it my way or risk punishment for doing it wrong”
Nonviolent communication teaches that if people hear a demand, and choose to comply with it, they’re acting from fear, guilt, or shame. Or they may choose not to comply with it, which tends to trigger frustration or anger on our part. Either way, this type of interaction blocks trust and communication.
What’s the alternative? We can request behaviour that enriches our work by appealing to people’s intrinsic motivations. This requires us to:
- discover people’s unmet needs through listening
- avoid judgemental language
- reframe our statements as clear requests, ie be willing to take no for an answer
This might require developing new skills and dealing with our own judgements—eg, “listening is pointless, these people seriously don’t get it.” It takes courage to make a genuine request, because we’re opening ourselves to failure. And yet, when people finally say yes, the resulting trust and communication create opportunities that previously seemed impossible.
(Want more? Come to my people skills workshop in January.)