From the time we’re in diapers, we’re taught the Golden Rule: treat others the way you’d like to be treated.
As a rule of thumb, this is great advice. It’s certainly better than treating others in ways no one would like to be treated. But in Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, Chris Voss argues that we’re better off tweaking the Golden Rule rule a bit.
Voss writes, “Don’t treat someone the way you want to be treated—treat them the way they need to be treated.” As the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator, Voss knows something about interpersonal interaction. While he’s making his argument in the context of negotiation, the idea has wider applications, including the world of work. But first, what does Voss mean?
We’re not as normal as we think
Human beings are often self-centered, and we tend to see ourselves as simultaneously exceptional and typical. Though we think of ourselves as logical, our thinking is plagued by dozens of cognitive biases, including the false consensus effect: the tendency to overestimate the degree to which our values, beliefs and preferences are typical. In short, we tend to think everyone’s pretty much like us. Obviously, they’re not—a fact I’m reminded of every time I order a pizza topped with bacon, pineapple, and jalapeños within earshot of another human being. (I see those sidelong glances, fellow diners. Fine—more for me!)
Interpersonal communication can be a particular challenge at work, where individuals with diverse backgrounds interact all day long while (hopefully) working toward shared objectives. Healthy workplaces don’t feature much outright malice, but honest misunderstandings are hard to avoid, and they often arise when we treat others the way we’d like to be treated instead of how they’d like to be treated. Take small talk, for example.
I like just a bit of small talk at work. A few moments at the start of the day is usually plenty for me. You may prefer more chitchat, or perhaps you won’t stand for any. After five years, I certainly know where each of my colleagues stands. Yet when I’m catching up with a coworker who prefers a little more small talk, I often fail to consider their preference. I’m antsy to get back to work, and I’m not thinking about their needs. If I were, I’d extend the conversation a bit.
And small talk is low-hanging fruit. It’s much more difficult to suss out our co-workers’ more subtle preferences, like their pet peeves or how they prefer to receive bad news. I’m happy to have come across a possible solution.
The user manual
According to a 2013 New York Times column, a Norwegian executive named Ivar Kroghrud has implemented a clever tool to minimize interpersonal strife in the workplace: the personal user manual.
Frustrated by the one-size-fits-all approaches to interpersonal communication, he typed up a one-page document describing how he prefers to work and distributed it to his coworkers. Here are some excerpts:
I am patient, even-tempered and easygoing. I appreciate straight, direct communication. Say what you are thinking, and say it without wrapping your message.
I am goal-oriented but have a high tolerance for diversity and openness to different viewpoints. So, again, say what you are thinking and don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo.
Kroghrud’s thoughts on the need for a user manual echoes Chris Voss’ earlier advice about breaking the Golden Rule:
I’ve always been struck by this sort of strange approach that people take, where they try the same approach with everybody they work with. But if you lead people for a while, you realize that it’s striking how different people are — if you use the exact same approach with two different people, you can get very different outcomes.
The user manual is a promising idea, and I plan to float the idea with my department soon. Regardless of how we accomplish it, we should work to remember that when it comes to interpersonal communication, our preferences are not necessarily our colleagues’ preferences. If we want the happiest, most productive workplace possible, we need to go one step beyond the Golden Rule and ask ourselves a question: “How does this person want to be treated?”