Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Communicating with Busy People

Symptom:

You email someone or leave a message and the person blows you off often.

Solution:

I have been on both sides of the fence, more recently on the busy person's side. As a software developer you do need to communicate with people, and often engineering types neglect the understanding of the aspect of psychology and emotions involved in human communications. Dealing with busy people, especially communicating with them effectively, requires some "soft" understanding skills of human behavior. So here I am sharing some of the things that I discovered that is working for me.

Here I am talking about truly busy people. If you ask most people in work situations, most people say they are busy but they are actually not that busy. In fact, most people who say that they are busy tend to be not busy and really busy people are too busy to mention that they are busy. Get it? It takes years of personal training to be truly busy, on demand from people and on a mission to improve whatever you are doing! It requires both focusing and time management skills. But I digress, I will write more about that later on.

Now consider this typical scenario:
  • You send out a email to someone, say your manager asking a question. You have written 70 to 100 lines explaining everything she needs to know in a great detail so that she does not have to ask for more information.
  • You feel that you have done everything right and wrote a courteous and detailed message. You also feel that you have chosen email as a courtesy as you know the person is really busy.
  • You get no response, not even an acknowledgement. Now you feel that she is a jerk.
Sounds familiar, right?

Now consider you are at the other end of the fence receiving this lengthy email message just a time you are ready to go to another 2-hour customer meeting.

From the recipient side the following thing comes to mind:
  • "Gosh, another lengthy email from a colleague. I need to read it and understand what I need to do."
  • First reaction, "Oh shit, another work to do on my list of things to do."
  • But then she feels; "I know he is a hard worker and he means well, I don't want hurt his feeling."
  • So, she decides: "I will respond to him when the meeting is over." (fat chance!)
And as she get out of that meeting, and try to hit a restroom on the way to another meeting, 2-3 people stop her on the way and asks. "I need to see you..." "Where is...." By the time she ends the second meeting, another 5 email messages are also waiting in her in-box some of them are from a potential customer that she needs to give the top priority to. By the end of the day, she has totally forgotten about your email she got in the morning. It has scrolled off the visible part of her Outlook or Gmail window. (Side Note: I used to have a co-worker who would ambush me at the bathroom exit. Her cube was on the way from my cube to the bathroom. As I went she senses, wait for 3 minutes and then stands by the door to get a hold of me. This worked for her, she got a lot of my attention, and she had a courtesy for not catching me on the other direction, that would made me mad!)

Now you know the both sides of the equation. There is a few things to note.
  • You have actually succeeded in reaching out to her by sending an email just before she went into a long meeting. Actually this timing plays a role in an effective communication.
  • You did not know but you also acted like a jerk for sending a lengthy message, leaving her to interpret the email.
  • You did not know what she thought about you when she opened the email. She actually did appreciate the work you put in, but then she felt like "how can I make this person more independent."
  • You did not even know that she did not want to hurt your feelings. (This is actually very important psychology that you need to swallow.)
  • You have made a request to her and that you have added extra work for her to do, one of them is to interpret this lengthy email.
  • She is probably more motivated to this customer meeting than your email.
  • She knows you so she is implicitly permitted to blow you off but not the customer. Not correct way of thinking but that's how it works.
Finally Some Tips:

Now that I have laid out the background, giving the tips is actually quite easy.
  • Write shorter messages and more often (but not too often). These days "chat" style of emailing is quite acceptable. My emails messages are usually not longer than 140 characters in length and for more info, I create a shared document and put a URL to it. I find it a bit of challenge in cramming in all the info in that space.
  • Earlier part of the message, especially the Subject line of email is the most important part of the message.
  • Do not compose a message that give a lot of work or interpretation on the recipient's part. As much as possible write a message saying exactly one thing she needs to do.
  • Yes, one thing at at time! Never ever put more than one request in a message. Send a separate message at the right timing for the second stuff.
  • If the action will benefit ultimately in her reputation or pay include that info too. It is mostly all about the motivation that drive people to do things.
  • To this effect, I often use "Call For Action" keywords in the Subject line. In fact many of my email messages are complete message crammed in the subject line like: "Sarah: Sign the Check for ACME today." "Mike: Let's do Lunch Today at 12:00?" This way the recipient knows email is TO them and know exactly what to do. The message is right in front of email list and no need to open it, and action is right in the subject too. The message stands out clearly and talking to the person what needs to be done. To study Call For Action style communications, I recommend you read Google AdWords advise. Yes, basically you want a one click action and response from your recipient out of 100s of competing emails in her box!
  • If it involves emotional discussions or expressions (for example, you are angry or concerned), do not write email. Call and leave a voicemail message. Voice can convey your emotions.
  • Know that most other people may not manage their email box or voicemail box as well as you do. Emails are lost, buried or simply not looked at.
Some Tips on Motivation

I used to get mad when my boss sent me a request and I responded I got an instant response from the boss but he blew off most of my messages I sent earlier, and that comes down to the part of understanding the motivation.

When someone send you a message, the person is motivated, and motivated about the subject matter at the time.

This is actually a big opportunity to get a time slot from the person who send you the message. But remember that you are dealing with a busy person so the person's motivation changes very quickly and moves on to something else in a few minutes.

One strategy that works is this. When you get an email message, do not respond to that topic, but write another (short) message about what you want the other person to do (most). What this does is that the recipient in now in a motivated state to communicate with you and you can ride on that bandwidth. Don't do that too much but it often works. You also get pretty much one chance to do this.

In Summary
  • Busy people are exactly that, they do not have time, so don't expect to get more time out of them.
  • Busy people think the best way to deal with some things are to just leave them undone and not responding since by a response this will cause more work and responsibility to them.
  • Emotions, Behaviors, and Motivations play a key role in the dynamics of human communications. This is where your the courtesy protocol that your parent taught you breaks down leaving you feeling like an neglected idiot. Of course you are not.
  • Always communicate in short and exactly down to the point method of messaging often including "call for action" style messages. Do not write any more than 2 paragraphs. If there is more information, attach it as a file or point to a URL to your own blog or file download page... whatever technology you got.
  • With emotional topics, use voicemail or better yet, talk directly to the person.
  • People have been doing their people thing for at least 20, 30 or 40 years. Fat chance their behavior changes over-night. The best way to get through to people is to understand individual's motivation to me.
  • Sometimes it does simply not work. In that case consider abandoning, move to another department, another customer, or another job.
  • Finally, swallow the fact that neglecting is not personal, but people are simply just stretched to the max and do not have time. It is even be thought of as a friendly gesture not to hurt your feelings and an indication of trust that you won't get mad (or at least you won't express it immediately.)
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