Open communication opens doors

A mailing list I subscribe to sent an e-mail today entitled “Why the three-day rule is lame.” If you are single or have once been and you don’t live in a cave, you’ve heard of this “rule”. It states that a guy (specifically) should not call a girl in the first 3 days after they meet, for fear of looking desperate or too eager. In discrediting this rule, the author, a woman, writes “if she liked you, she’s waiting for your call.” Excellently put.

I haven’t been in this situation in years, so I’m not directly affected by it, but it reminds me of a problem that happens every day, to everyone. Misunderstandings caused by interpretations are a staple in today’s overanalytical world, and they are not creating more happiness, rather far from it.

We have all started a sentence with “I just wanted to say…”? What’s with the “just”? You’re basically telling the listener that what you’re about to say is not worth all that much. We preface critical statements with  “no offense, but…” in order to dull the blow, but what we’re actually doing is telling the listener that something they likely won’t enjoy hearing is about to be said. And what about those hard truth-type statements that begin with “sorry, but…” when the speaker isn’t sorry at all? (Consider that if they were truly sorry, they wouldn’t finish the sentence.) Be yourself. Don’t apologize or make excuses for your actions, especially not before you even say or do anything.

Just like the three-day dating “rule”, we’re complicating communication because we’re afraid of how it will be interpreted, but in reality, we have absolutely no idea how any given person will interpret what we are about to say. By needlessly complicating our communication, we are creating greater distances between sender and receiver. More than that, we are promoting a notion that people are so overly sensitive to the opinions of others. As a result, that exact scenario is happening. Just look at how political correctness has gotten so out of hand.

The solution, like always, is simple. Think before you talk, and if you truly believe what you’re about to say, then say it straight. No buts, justs, or sorrys, simply say it. Treat the listener as a big person, capable of hearing the tough news and taking it like an adult. If we treat people we talk to like babies, they’ll likely respond like babies. On the receiving end, if you don’t understand something that is said to you, don’t jump to an unreal, based-on-your-own-history interpretation. Instead, ask the sender for clarification. And if you don’t like what you heard, discuss it, calmly, like the adult that you are (or claim to be.)

I have always believed in being straight with people though I have gotten into trouble for it on occasion. Recently, I got an e-mail asking if a certain date was available for me to run an event. This date was tentatively booked, but my client hadn’t returned the contract I sent 3 days earlier. I wrote that client an e-mail late in the day and asked if I could get a response that night, hoping that the client had a smartphone. The client did not interpret my e-mail as the simple request it was, but rather as a pressure-filled unreasonable demand. Why? I don’t know. The client hung up on me when I called to follow up. In cases like these, I always look for the lesson.

Much more often, though, I have benefitted tremendously from being straight with people. When I manage staff or contact suppliers and partners, my questions are to the point and specific, and I demand that the answers be the clear and relevant to the question. The result is that everyone knows what the agreement or plan is, and what to expect.

I see the “three day rule” as an example only, useful in most if not all areas of life. I strongly support the idea shared by the female author – if you like her, don’t wait to call her. It is tempting to take the easy road and follow the “rule”. This way, if something goes wrong, one can claim that it wasn’t their fault. However, interpretations come in all shapes and sizes. The same way that the “rule” is predicated on avoiding leaving an impression of desperation or overeagerness, waiting 3 days (or more) can leave an impression of irresponsibility, a lack of conviction, or of someone who doesn’t call when they say they will. Suddenly, that relationship that you were hoping to start in 3 days is no longer possible because the other person has had 3 days to make up tons of stories about you that probably aren’t true. To sum up, since you don’t know what the other person will think, say what you mean and mean what you say.

As long as we are open to making mistakes and learning from them, each person is the expert on what works for them. Besides, if we make mistakes doing things our way, we can take responsibility. (Yes, I wrote “can” – taking responsibility is an honour, not a burden.) If we make mistakes doing things the way others tell us to do things, we are more inclined to lay blame, causing resentment and leaving no room to learn from our mistakes, since we don’t see the mistake as ours. However, learning from one’s mistakes and not repeating them is key. Einstein brilliantly wrote that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. If your way of doing things isn’t working, perhaps it’s time to do it differently, and others can help in finding that different method.

People claim that we have “freedom of speech” or “freedom of expression” every day. Looking at our society, can we really claim that we express ourselves freely? Wars were fought over it, and good people died protecting these rights, but we’ve thrown them away in peace time, in order not to even risk offending people. No one can offend you without your permission. If we are to truly have the freedom to express ourselves, then we need to exercise that freedom. People say what they say, and we have the choice to interpret what we heard any way we want to. We have many options, but one thing is for sure, if we are expecting to be upset by a comment, we’ll make up an interpretation of that comment that justifies our upset. If we are committed to being happy, we can just as easily interpret that criticism as a caring comment from someone who loves us. See every communication as a gift, even (and especially) the ones that you didn’t enjoy hearing.

It is easy to flatter someone because there are no expected negative consequences. When someone gets up the nerve to tell you something constructively critical, consider that they are taking a huge risk, one that they could easily avoid taking in favour of less anxiety. They are putting their own feelings on the line for your benefit. Recognize this courage and hold the door open for these people. If we stop opening doors, we’re stuck where we are.


1 Comment

  1. My mother used to constantly leave me phone messages saying “It’s just me calling…” or “It’s just your mom calling…” and I found (my opinion) that it changed the tone of the entire message following.
    I told her that she, my mother, is more that any “just” and that I would not call her back when she left messages describing herself thus.
    Four years later it still slips in from time to time, but she “got” it when we discussed it, and I think that she was happy that I created that distinction with her.

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