Update 09/14/17: Glenn Burnside, who originally taught me this idea, has written his own blog post. Highly recommended that you read it first!

Ever been in a difficult conversation where you felt that the other side was trying to dismiss your concerns? Or maybe you were on the other side, trying to reassure someone that things weren’t so bad, but they wouldn’t listen?

Glenn Burnside once taught me a very effective communication technique for dealing with such situations on client projects. The beauty is that it works equally well in personal life, as a recent parenting crisis demonstrated to me.


The Situation (aka why I wrote this post)

Recently our 3-year old was injured rather badly by another child at day care. The other kid didn’t really know what he was doing, and our kid forgot about it in a day or two, but as parents we were on edge. This kind of incident had happened before on a smaller scale, which we had explained away saying “They’re just kids”. This time it was serious, so we decided to call the other kid’s parents over to talk.

When we met them, one of the parents was distraught. She hadn’t been able to sleep the night before, had bought books to understand her kid’s behavior, and even spoken with the teachers at our day care.

The other parent, though, kept saying things like “This could just as easily have been the other way round”, “Boys will be boys” and “I’ve seen your kid push ours too”. He kept trying to make us believe that this is a normal situation, that it’s nobody’s fault, and nothing can be done.

Maybe he was right. But the more he tried to calm us down, the angrier it made us.

And that’s when I was reminded of Glenn’s lesson. Except the roles were reversed… we were the unhappy client, and the person in front of us was botching it.

The Technique, in Glenn’s Words

(reproduced with permission)


The Why

Think about how your client feels about a project or a situation as a pendulum. On the left end is “You’re fired”. On the right end is “I’m calling your boss to tell him to give you a raise. By the way, we’d like to pay a 15% premium on top of the original price.” Your client’s current state of mind is probably somewhere in between. Delivering a successful project absolutely requires an actual high quality product of work that does what we claim. It equally requires convincing your client that this work product is absolutely rock solid and ready to go. A component of that is getting them to swing their emotional pendulum further over to the right.

The What

Recognizing where your client is on the pendulum is the first step. Look for what they’re expressing - grave concern? Anger? Mild disinterest? Elation? Figure out where they are right now on the pendulum.

Now - here’s the important part - When you talk to the client about the project, always be a little bit behind them on the emotional pendulum.

If they say “This is the best software in the whole wide world!” your position should be “Yeah, I agree, it’s pretty good!”

If they say “This is pretty good software!” your position should be “It is, isn’t it. We’re going to make it even better in the next release.”

If they say “I’m a little disappointed we didn’t get everything in this sprint” your position should be “I hear you, and I really feel like we let you down. Here’s what I’m going to do so this never happens again.”

This sounds backwards

It does. I agree. But here’s the thing - it’s in human nature to want people to be as optimistic as you are. When you’re just a little behind the client on the pendulum, and they sense that, their inclination is going to be to want to pull you up to their level of excitement and enthusiasm. And in that process, they’ll actually push themselves even higher up the pendulum.

By comparison - ever try to cheer someone up who’s feeling down? How often does it actually work? When you tell them “it’s not so bad!” do they ever look at you and say “Wow, you’re right. It’s not. I’m all better!” Of course not. But if you recognize their feelings, acknowledge them with empathy, they’re more likely to say “thanks for hearing me. I feel a lot better now.” Similar interplay is at work in client communications - especially in those “bad news” situations. You can’t pull a client up the pendulum, but you can get them to pull you.

What it comes down to is, in all circumstances, good or bad, making sure that the client knows that you’re just a little more committed to making this succeed than they are.

The technique in action

I remember the following exchange when my wife was going out with friends for the first time after our kid was born, leaving me in charge:

Her: Should I get his dinner ready before I go?

Me: I’ll figure it out, don’t worry. You go have fun!

Her: What about his bath stuff, do you know where everything is?

Me: Honey, relax, I’ve got this. Now go!

Her (not convinced): Okay.

Her (30 mins later, from the restaurant): Is everything OK? Should I come back early?

Me (getting annoyed): Why won’t you just trust me with this?

… and so on…

Over time, I learnt to respond in a different way:

Her: Should I get his dinner ready before I go?

Me: I was going to make pasta with sauce and veggies, will that do?

Her: What about his bath stuff, do you know where everything is?

Me: I’ll go get it now. Which pajamas were you thinking he should wear?

Her: The red ones. Ok, I’m off then, love you guys!

Me: Success!

How NOT to use the technique

Persuasion techniques like this are always subject to abuse. Maybe you just wanted to temporarily placate someone but had no intention to follow up. Or maybe you just manipulated someone into feeling a certain way to get what you wanted out of them. This will backfire on you. Actions, eventually, do speak louder than words.

The correct time to use this technique is when the other person is significantly lower on the pendulum, and you need to gently, tactfully bring them over to your side. Our default behavior is to try and enforce our point of view on them - like saying “Cheer up!” to a low friend, or “You’re worrying for no reason” to a spouse. Instead, work with them at their level and slowly nudge them to a better state.

Back to the real world

In the case of my kids’ injury, this is why we felt anger towards the parent who (from a rational viewpoint) was being the most calm of all. He was way, way higher than us on the emotional pendulum; so his well-meaning attempts to make us calm actually made us trust him less. We felt like he would do nothing to address our concerns, and if left to him, things would continue to worsen.

The other parent, who stayed up all night and read books and spoke to teachers, was slightly behind us on the pendulum. That made us feel much more empathetic towards her, like she shared our concern and would never let this happen again. We felt we could trust her to resolve the situation.

So, now you know about managing the emotional pendulum. How are you going to practice it?