Thursday, February 20, 2014

Trouble Getting Your Point Across? SWEETEN the Deal—Serve Dessert First!

Photo © Lord William Chard

“We should get a new cabinet in the workshop! Stuff is all over the place. We can organize the space and make it look better.”

This was my friend’s lament for 6 months. But every time she presented it to her boss, she barely got the first words out of her mouth before her boss got visibly agitated and changed the subject. It was maddening. She tried every tactic she could think of—waiting until the boss was in a good mood, asking first thing in the morning, last thing at night, leaving notes, waiting, insisting. The worst part was that the cabinet was no big thing. It was well within the office budget, and her boss certainly had the authority to order the cabinet. There was plenty of room for it. But no! It was a cause of infinite frustration for my friend. She knew her boss could be very contrary. The Boss always wanted the last word, and wanted to be known as the “decision maker.” Unless The Boss specifically asked for opinions, the input of employees was clearly never welcome, even if it was important. 

What, my friend lamented, could she possibly do? Tools were stacked up all over the place, and the space would be so much more efficient, and look so much more professional, with everything put away in a cabinet, but still her boss resisted. It would even make her boss look better to upper management. Was there anything else she could do? 

YES! Serve Dessert First!

Now, the following approach may not work for every situation, but this is great for certain kinds of resistance, particularly when the person you’re trying to communicate with feels they might be losing their control of the situation (and that can be someone who has total control, like a boss, or someone with virtually no control who will want to hold on to what little security they feel they have). 

First let’s look at my friend’s request:
 “We should get a new cabinet in the workshop! Stuff is all over the place. We can organize the space and make it look better.”

There are three parts to this communication (in the above example, one sentence for each part), and each serves a specific purpose.

Look at the first one:
 “We should get a new cabinet in the workshop!”
What would you call this? My friend thinks it’s a request. It’s the action that has to be taken. But perhaps her boss feels it’s a demand, or, worse, a command. And we know the boss isn’t taking commands from the staff. Judging from the boss’ reaction, the boss seems to feel it would require some kind of a compromise or sacrifice of authority, even though, in truth, it will benefit everyone. We already know that the boss shuts down at the first sentence.

The second part:
“Stuff is all over the place.”

This is the reason for the request, the essence of the problem, the “because.” “We need a cabinet because…”

And the final part:
“We can organize the space and make it look better.”
That’s the payoff, the desired outcome. If each of these three parts were the courses in a meal, this would be the sweet dessert at the end.

Now a lot of people would look at those three sentences and think that was a pretty well reasoned argument. “We need X (action) because Y (problem), so that we can have Z (reward).”

And in some situations, that is all it would take to get things done. But as my friend said, her boss got turned off from the very start

Why would that be? Well, no one wants to be greeted with a demand, and a defensive person might instinctively shrink back from such a thing, sometimes without listening any further. People under stress, people who feel emotionally compromised, etc., may not want to, or be able to, deal with any more demands than they’re dealing with already. And people who may feel their authority or control over a situation is being compromised will fight back against the challenge to their status. 

So what do you do? GIVE THEM DESSERT FIRST! Stimulate their apatite! If they’re resisting taking action, give them the sweet result, the desired outcome first. Like this:
“We can organize the space and make it look better. Stuff is all over the place. We should get a new cabinet in the workshop!”

We’ve put the desired outcome, the reward, right up front, where it will sweeten the entire conversation, just as the demand soured it in the first example. Who would disagree that a workplace should be neat and organized? 

The “because,” the problem, is still right in the middle, justifying and reinforcing the need to make a change. But still, nothing that could be interpreted as a command. And following the happy desired-outcome, it seems like less of “a problem” and more of a challenge to be overcome, which seems less daunting. It also raises an unspoken question as to how that desired outcome could be achieved. And an astute listener might even begin to think about possible solutions at this point. But there’s no pressure on the listener (in this case, The Boss) to act or obey in a certain way. And yet, that happy outcome is also presented as dependent on taking action.

And the final sentence, which was a call to action when it was the beginning sentence, comes across as the answer to the unspoken question framed by first sentence. Heck, the boss might even think he came up with it.

The formula, now, would be: “We can have Z (reward) if we deal with Y (problem) by doing X (action).”

It’s the same set of sentences and ideas, but delivered much more softly, enticingly and less aggressively. But more importantly, this arrangement of the three parts gives the listener the feeling of control, while the first situation threatens loss of control, and that is no small thing. Most people like to have control over their interactions, and for someone who feels control is an important issue, helping them maintain their feeling of control can be key to keeping them open to your input.

To recap, if you’re presenting a proposal that’s being met with resistance when action has to be taken, be sure to sweeten the scenario by presenting the positive outcome, the reward, first. Some sales people call this “the hook.” Use it to hook their interest and set a positive, receptive mood to the discussion. Support that positive outcome by presenting the challenge (the problem) that is the obstacle that has to be overcome. At this point in your presentation, before you even suggest the action you want them to take, you should notice that you have sparked their interest or at least their attention. They may already be thinking of action to take, but you can follow it up with your suggested solution. 

It’s a much more positive way to present a plan of action. Be sure to listen to what the other person has to say while this is going on. They might have other reasons for their resistance that they will be more willing to share when they realize this is a win-win proposal and they don’t feel pressured. And when those reasons come out, they can be addressed to get you closer to success. 

And of course, while my example in this article is in three sentences for brevity, you can adapt the concept as need be. You might have a stack of several challenges/problems, or more than one terrific solution to offer. And there are no restrictions to the length. You might be able to get all three parts into a single sentence, or you might apply the structure to a business proposal that’s hundreds of pages long.
Think about this and put it into practice. I’d love to hear your success stories!