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Being part of the solution: part 1: focusing on other people's needs.

To inspire people to give their best, focus on their needs, not yours.

We have a new journal, with an aggressive focus on providing solutions. To pay tribute to the new spirit, this series will examine cases in which people in business used communication skills to solve, rather than add to, problems.

An unnatural perspective

The first skill in this critical endeavor is focusing, on other people's needs. Like most basic communication skills, this one sounds easy, but it is extraordinarily difficult. When you're facing an urgent problem and you know--or think you know--the best way to solve it, the automatic response is to tell people to do just that. Stopping to consider their needs is usually the last thing you want to do. However, people are not automatons. As you've probably noticed, they don't jump and switch gears just because you tell them to do so. If you ignore their needs, they grumble or object--and even if you have the power to force them to do what you say, they don't put their hearts into it.

A case of forgetting about people's needs

Take the case of one manager facing a crisis. He was a mill manager whom we were coaching on presentation skills. The presentation he was about to give his people concerned serious competition. If they didn't find a way to meet more customer needs at a lower cost, he told us, the mill could well be shut down.

We asked him what he planned to tell them in his presentation.

"I've got to light some fires!" he said. "I'll tell them that if we don't meet more customer needs at less cost to ourselves, we'll soon be blown out of the water. I'll show them exactly what's going on in Asia and even with some of our domestic competitors, and then I'll challenge them to get together and bring me ideas for change in two weeks max."

Then we asked him how he thought his listeners would react to his main message: We need to meet more customer needs at less cost to ourselves, now. Give us at least three thoughts that would probably run through their minds as he spoke, we said.

He answered, "Well, first they'd probably think: 'Uh-oh. There goes my travel allowance. There goes my vacation. There goes my job!' Then they'd think, 'That's impossible. I'm already working as hard as I can.' Finally, they might think, 'He's trying to influence us in the upcoming union vote.'"

So would they be paying close attention and trying to do as he asked? His answer was a definite NO.

A turnaround that paid off

The manager rewrote the presentation and gave it as follows.

After the main message, he immediately addressed his people's concerns. First, he said he could imagine that this news could frighten them about their jobs. Their heads came up, he told us, and he could see he had hit on exactly what they were thinking. He told them there was little cause for worry, if they did what another firm in a similar situation had done to improve, and he gave them that specific example.

Then he said they probably thought his demands were impossible: they were already working as hard as they could. Again, heads came up. No, he told them, it wasn't impossible, and he gave them an example of how one of them had shipped a product in less wrapping material than before, thereby saving both the mill and the customer wrapping and disposal charges.

He paused there to ask if anyone else had done or noticed similar creative solutions. People added some, and he put them on the flip chart.

Finally, he assured them that this talk had nothing to do with the upcoming negotiations. He .just wanted them to succeed, he said, and he knew they could. Would they get together in focus groups to brainstorm solutions and bring him their ideas in a couple of weeks?

In less than a week, he had lists of ideas to meet more customer needs at lower costs to the mill. He also had the trust and goodwill of his workers. The presentation had achieved its goal, because the manager had focused on his listener's needs. He became part of the solution by inspiring people to think creatively and act willingly.

Cheryl and Peter Reimold have been teaching communication skills to engineers, scientists, and businesspeople for 20 years. Their firm, PERC Communications (telephone 1 914-725-1024, e-mail, offers businesses consulting and writing services, as well as customized in-house courses on writing, presentation skills, and on the-job communication skills. Visit their web site at
COPYRIGHT 2001 Paper Industry Management Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:The Language of Business
Author:Reimold, Peter
Publication:Solutions - for People, Processes and Paper
Date:Sep 1, 2001
Previous Article:Calendar of events.
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