Communication 10: Flexibility

Date: 11/16/2005

"If what you are doing  is not getting the results you want, try anything else."

A woman who was having communication problems presented them to NLP trainer Robert Dilts.  "For the past ten years I have been looking at my husband right in the eye and telling him loud and clear what I want...but he doesn't respond."

Robert Dilts said back to her "You say that for the last ten years you have been looking at your husband right in the eye, telling him loud and clear what you want and he doesn't respond?!  Try sneaking up from behind and whispering in his ear."

You might ask how does one know which "anything else" to try?  We will speak about that later.  In the meantime suffice it to say that being flexible in your communication is something that effective communicators keep in mind.  And so will you if you want to be an effective communicator.

I read a story of a student of Milton Erickson's who was always late for class.   Naturally this disturbed the professors as well as the students.  They tried threatening her with penalties and punishments, but no one could change her behavior.

No one except for Erickson.

As she walked into his lecture one day--late, of course--every student that she passed by on her way to her seat stood up and salaamed her.  Erickson salaamed her.  After class the janitor salaamed her.  The dean of the college salaamed her.  As she walked down the corridors the students salaamed her.   After that day she was on time for all of her classes.

The point is not that you should use this method;  perhaps you find salaaming people objectionable.  Or,  perhaps you figure that it won't work with this person in this situation.   The point is that disciplining and threats did not work so Erickson used his imagination and "tried anything else". 

Adding a little humor can also be an effective alternative to what you have been doing that hasn't worked.  Parents who find it difficult to get their children to do chores or get to bed on time might try using a more humorous approach.  Save the serious voice tone for more serious problems.   The same applies to employers with their employees.

For example, I read about a town in New Jersey that wanted to do something about drivers breaking the speed limit.  They put up road signs about the heavy fines and penalties for violating the speed limit.  Unfortunately, it did not make a significant difference.

Then they tried a different approach that did significantly reduce speeding violations.  They put up signs such as

---"Be sure to visit our traffic court; just drive faster than 40 mph."

---"Our town judge would love to meet you.  Just break the speed limit."

I know of a building in which one family continuously disturbed the other neighbors by making noise late at night after the time that the tenants had decided the building should be quiet.   Not reminders, nor threats, nor ostracizing them had any  effect.  Finally one of the neighbors tried a novel approach.  Instead of putting nasty letters into that family's mail box he wrote letters such as: 

---"To the Smith family;  Happy New Year!  Warmest regards, your neighbors.

---"To the Smith family;  Have a wonderful holiday!  All best wishes, your neighbors"

After 4 letters of this nature the "Smiths" acted more responsibly and refrained from making noise after the agreed-upon hour.

Sounds a little unbelievable, doesn't it?!  However, I personally know that this is a true story because I am the person who wrote those letters. 

I heard of a store manager whose sales staff kept breaking the rule and smoking inside the store when they thought he wasn't aware of this.  One day he handed each salesman a cigar and told them "I would appreciate it if you would smoke these on the outside."

Just to stimulate your imagination here are some alternative ways of communicating your message:  Write it in a letter,  leave a message on their voice mail,  send it with flowers,  have it printed on a balloon....

If some of these ideas sound silly it could be because they are!  In certain situations and with certain people, that is.  But if what you are doing is not working, and these might work, and they are appropriate to the people involved and the situation, by all means consider them.

Give it a try! Here is a strategy you can use to break out of rigid communication patterns and become more flexible.

1) Let your imagination generate ideas on how to deal with the situation.  Ask yourself  "What might be an effective way of communicating my idea to this person?  At this point do not evaluate ideas; just keep dreaming until you come up with at least 3-5 ideas. Don't be afraid to be a little outrageous; stretch your imagination.

2) Consider the ideas on your list and ask yourself which one seems best in this situation.

3) Consider how to implement the idea you have chosen and make any modifications on it that you think are appropriate for the person and situation.

4) Try it. You will probably get the results you want.  If not, try making a couple of adjustments in what you are doing and try again.  If you are still not getting the results you want...then try anything else...