I grew up in a fairly large family: three boys, a girl and Mom and Dad. We had a gazillion aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents , relatives and friends.

Because of this, there were a LOT of communication channels, and as a natural part of her position in the family, that meant that Mom was a hub to a LOT of that communication.

So as we all grew up, and moved on with our lives, I began to see something interesting happen: because we all spoke less frequently, there would be times when we would hear about things in a very delayed fashion.

“Oh that was probably around the time that Aunt Jo died”

“Aunt Jo died?”

“Oh, I thought I told you, that was last year”

It took me a while to figure out what was going on, and see this sort of thing happen in my own life. As near as I can tell there are a few of reasons why we as humans have trouble with complex communication channels like the one I see in my family.

Reason 1 – Once we plan to communicate, we forget to do it.

Especially when we are busy, and have limited interaction with people, it is easy to plan to give a message to somebody and then get distracted with other things. In the case of the family dynamic, as we were no longer all in the same household, fewer opportunities to actually say the things that are planned to be said wer available, meaning there were more opportunities for distraction between plan and action.

Reason 2 – Once we verbalize to some people, it’s hard to remember who we talked to.

A huge survival trait we all share as humans is generalization, and our subconscious tends to exhibit this with the people we are closest with. If you’ve ever heard a parent run through all the children’s names before hitting the right one, you know what I’m talking about.

And because the subconscious doesn’t really differentiate much between planning to do something and actually doing it, the plan we made to talk to four other people, really does seem complete once we’ve talked to some portion of them, because we thought about talking to them all.

Reason 4 – Priorities change.

When we plan to communicate, we know it’s important but with limited opportunity for that communication, other things come up that mean we don’t get around to it, and it no longer seems as important. In the fictitious “Aunt Jo” example, time has passed, mourning is done, and there’s not usually a reason to remember that we never had that conversation we meant to.

Reason 5 – We remember good things better than bad.

I’m a firm believer that it’s important to give feedback immediately, especially when it’s about something bad that happened. I also believe that over time, we remember the good moments in our lives better than those that aren’t as positive. That’s why when you think about the music that was on the radio when you were in high school, all sorts of wonderful tunes pop into your head, but when they actually play the top 40 from that same year, you hear some things that make you smile and wonder why they were popular.

This is probably another survival trait: I know for me, I can remember what to avoid, but the memories for what a burn feels like, or how much it hurts to skin my knee, is not nearly as vivid as what it feels like to hug my wife, or have that wonderful feeling of contentment after a holiday meal.

So if communication about something bad gets delayed long enough, it’s human nature not to bother with it. Not only do we  want to avoid dredging up things that aren’t fun, but the value of doing so has diminished, and so we just choose to forget (and maybe can’t remember).

So my solution for the Mom Communication Event ?

It’s really the same goal with every bit of communication, test that the message you sent was the one received. I used to wonder why people used to say “Did I tell you about …”, but now I know why, they were just being human, AND being good communicators, just like my Mom.

 

I recently had an experience that reminded me that you truly can negotiate anything.

I got a call from a buddy telling me that he his manager was looking for a contractor to replace somebody who wasn’t performing to the level they needed in a business analyst type of position. The person they were replacing was a low-range contractor, so the rate they had been paying was substantially lower than what I’ve been making (as a program manager), but they also expected they’d need to pay more to get the skill-set they were looking for.

That set my expectation to expect that there would be some serious negotiation around rate, so I tried to take my usual approach: avoid discussing rate with the client. In general I was able to succeed, and and instead talk about the job and how I would be effective in helping them (particularly in areas that the prior person had failed).

I do have another rule, however, which is that I will honestly answer a question put to me directly, so inevitably the question of rate did come up. The dreaded question of “what was your last rate?” comes up, and is always uncomfortable for me. I thought I did a good job of answering the question by letting them know that rate is not the deciding factor for me, that I expect a fair rate for the work being done, and that I wasn’t expecting anything like my prior rate. After that preface, I did let them know my last rate (as a program manager on an implementation project), and tried once again to set the expectation that I wasn’t expecting to recieve that sort of rate on this engagement.

I had this conversation with the Director of the group that was looking for help, and everything went well there. We connected well on our phone screen, and he turned me over to his hiring manager to complete the process (since it was her group and I’d be working for her).

At the end of the process I asked my usual questions about how I did, and whether they had any concerns that would keep them from offering me the job. It seemed I had done well, and that the next step was for them to complete their interview schedule, and check references. The Q&A about prior rates came up again, and I thought I once again responded with rate not being the deciding factor for me.

I diligently followed up with a thank-you email to each member of the team, and continued to ask my buddy about my chances. Eventually I got an email from the hiring manager telling me that it was between me and one other candidate. My friend told me there was no comparison, and that the only reason I might lose out would be on rate, since I was more qualified and had his backing.

After another weekend, I got an email from the hiring manager telling me that they had decided to go with the other candidate based on rate. This surprised me a little since I didn’t really think we’d ever discussed rate. So I dropped an email back to the Director (cc’ing the manager) asking why they thought my rate was too high when we hadn’t discussed it. I carefully crafted the email as a question about my communication skills and helping me to improve them:

I heard  from <your manager> and my friend that the decision was to go with  another  candidate based on rate.

I was a little surprised since I   didn’t think we had gotten to the point where a negotiation of rate  had  started, beyond my responding to questions about my rate on prior  engagements.  My experience in the past has been that if the  rate is too high,  they simply ask me if I’ll take less.

If you  could help me out in  understanding if I set an unreasonable  expectation, or if this was instead  just a matter of the other guy  being a better fit, I’d appreciate any feedback  you could give me.

Interestingly what the net result of this email was, was that the negotiations were reopened. He replied to me that they had compared the rate I had told them from my previous work, to the rate that the other contractor was asking for, and simply assumed that I wouldn’t be happy with a reduced rate. We traded emails back and forth a few times, and we agreed on a rate that was the same as what they were looking for with the other candidate, and it felt like there was a chance I’d won the engagement.

In hind sight, I think one mistake I made here was sending this email to the Director instead of to the hiring manager, since she was the one who would ultimately make the decision. That said, I did re-learn a valuable lesson about negotiating: it ain’t over until it’s over ….

It’s all about getting to yes, and by asking these people if they could help me understand why we hadn’t negotiated on rate, I helped them understand they could have negotiated for a more valuable resource a little better, and kept the negotiation open.