Customer Experience encompasses a multitude of sub-disciplines and covers substantial ground in the world of business.   However, one specific aspect of Customer Experience that interests me in particular and is something I’ve been attuned to for years is the art of communication.   Those working in an organization where there is more than one employee, which naturally applies to just about everyone except for those one-person operations, will appreciate the ideas expressed here. Even those running solo independent businesses will also appreciate the opportunity this presents to them in terms of honest self-reflection.

During my time at Boston University where I was studying adult learning theory and instructional design, a professor introduced me to the work of George M. Prince who was the co-creator Synectics.  Synectics is a creative problem-solving process as well as the name of the company co-founded by George Prince.  The process of creativity was so interesting to me that I took a summer course with George and got to know him personally and thereafter invited him to bring some of his ideas around communication into the organization I was working for at the time.  It proved both educational yet surprisingly disrupting to the 20 or so employees that were invited to take part in a Synectics creativity session.

Sessions were recorded and what was discovered is that certain things will reduce the probability of a successful outcome, and the language we use to communicate is one of the more significant.  A discovery of this led to what is known as the Discount-Revenge cycle.  This is a relatively invisible yet dynamic process that has a great influence on people working together for a common purpose.  Essentially it goes something like this.

In a group setting at work with the common goal of coming up with some new ideas that will solve a customer experience problem, George hands a dry erase marker to Susan and says “Here, Susan why don’t you take notes so we can capture everything.”  Ideas start out slowly but eventually start getting generated and Bill enthusiastically jumps up and says “I think we should run a lost-business study to see why some customers are choosing to leave us” and then Mary chimes in very quickly and says “That’s too slow and isn’t going to help us get to the root cause very quickly.”  The conversation continues as suggestions are made yet Bill is noticeably quiet until Mary suggests “Maybe we should add a question to our relationship survey to see how likely a customer is to do repeat business with us.”  Bill jumps right back with “But we already ask them how likely they are to recommend us and if they are aren’t then they sure as heck aren’t likely to buy from us again if that’s the case.”  Susan has been noticeably quiet in her role as scribe and has offered no suggestions at all during the meeting.

What we see happening here is a classic example of the discount-revenge cycle.  This is precisely what George Prince and his colleagues studied and were able to prove through the repeated recording of sessions like this and from brain research which is that people are extremely sensitive to the slightest threat to meaningfulness.  Anything that is perceived as a discount will tend to generate a response in the form of either revenge (a come-back, or one-better) or a complete withdrawal.

In this example, Bill perceives Mary’s response to his suggestion as a discount on his idea and awaits his chance for revenge by further discounting Mary’s later suggestion.  The two of them appear to have an inclination to keep the discount-revenge cycle going whereas Susan just quietly withdrew from participation in the dialog entirely after having been asked to be the scribe—something she likely perceived as a discount, albeit a slight one.

According to the work of George Prince, any sort of slight or negative attention or lack of acknowledgment is enough to set the discount-revenge cycle in motion. Given the unlimited opportunities for such unintended discounts in the everyday operations of businesses and other organizations, the extent of defensiveness and lack of commitment by employees is hardly surprising.

What can we do individually help foster better communication in situations like the one described above?  Here are four fairly simple ground rules or best-practices—one’s that should be discussed and agreed to at the start of any meeting where problem-solving and or creativity are required.

All ideas need to be acknowledged and people need to feel validated.  Acknowledgment does not necessarily mean you agree with an idea. Until proper dialog and discussion have taken place, all ideas should remain on the table. No idea should ever be rejected out of hand because to do so discounts the individual that offered it and starts the cycle of discount-revenge.

Avoid using the word “but.”   But, literally negates what someone has just said or offered. “But we tried that before and it didn’t work,” is such a classic response that is sure to generate revenge or withdrawal by others.  Try saying “Yes, that’s something we did try before with little result, but maybe we can approach it differently this time.”  See the difference?  In the latter, you are acknowledging the idea and validating the individual and leaving the door open to new options and ideas to actually make something work.

Take ownership.  Avoid accusatory language that typically starts with the word “you.” A professor friend of mine recently told me that his graduate student said to him “You dinged me on my grade.”  This, of course, discounted the professor, made him feel like the perpetrator that did something unfair to the student.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  In reality, the student actually reduced his own grade himself by not completing a specific assignment on time and by not participating in class.

With any suggestion or idea, start by coming up with three positive reasons why it might be OK or a good idea.  Trust me, this can be a 100% effective practice.  Forcing out three good aspects to any idea is sure to create enthusiasm and perhaps even a bit of levity.  After that, instead of just coming up with three negative aspects of the idea, couch them in terms of problems that, if overcome, could help make that idea a viable idea or solution.  Now you’re using language that’s constructive and relationship-building instead of destructive and damaging to relationships.

For more about the work of George Prince and the creative problem-solving process, consider this following books he wrote on the subject.

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