The surprising power of being nice
Near my home in Helsinki, there is a children’s playground. It has the usual stuff: swings, slides, sandbox. However, there is one special feature: It has a toy box. A large plywood box full of spades, buckets, plastic trucks and anything a 2-6 year old can dream of.
The box is operated by volunteers: you pay small amount of money, get the key, can use the toys, collect toys & lock the box when you leave the playground.
There is one twist, though, and it led me to a learning about communication.
Once the box is open, every kid in the playground rushes to the box to see what treasures there are. It takes just minutes to see most of the toys disappear from the box and toddlers carrying them into the sandbox and beyond. Not everyone has the key, though, and most people probably have no idea why the box is open.
The problem comes when I need to go home. When I leave, I need to lock the box and I’d like to see all the toys back in the box. If they are left outside, who knows how long it takes before the next person with a key comes and collects the toys.
What can I do when I want to influence bunch of strangers? They are not my toys, but I feel responsible for keeping them safe.
My favorite line is the following
Does anyone have the key to the box? (pause) Well, I have and I will be leaving in about five minutes. If you want, please bring toys back to the box as I will lock it when I leave.
This usually causes quite a fuss. Parents rush their kids to return the toys and while doing that they come and thank me for letting them play with the toys. People are smiling, it is not common to ask “if you want“. Everyone seems happy and toys are returned to the box.
What is so special about this? I noted several points that are useful in any other communication.
– I may not be the king of the hill. Someone else may have a key, too, and he can take care of the toy box after I leave. Similarly at the workplace: when meeting with people I try to inquire rather than command. “Does anyone know about yesterday’s outage” is much better than “Hey guys, let’s have a quick brainstorming about the outages”
– I want to be specific about my role in the situation and my expectations. In the toy box example, I tell people that (a) I have a key to the box, (b) I will be leaving soon and (c) I want to see the toys returned. Too often I find myself being vague, especially if I deal with strangers or situation is uncomfortable (e.g. taking toys from kids). It would not be useful to say “Could you maybe bring some toys closer to the box“. Being soft and vague is not nice. Being vague is almost impolite.
– I want to trust people. I could think that “people just want to steal the toys” . That would cause very different choice of words, probably confrontative and aggressive. Saying “If you want” is a way to express trust and create a feeling that I am equal with them. I am not the box-keeper of czar-of-the-playground.
– I can not control everything. What if one 2.5-year boy really does not want to give back the Lightning McQueen bucket? Shout, maybe, or take it by force? No, not really. At the end, it is about wanting to return the toys.
Seldom have I managed to create such a powerful statement, yet being nice and bringing smile to people’s face. I hope I could repeat this at home or at the office, when I want something to happen and fear that it may not be pleasant for others.
OK, you say, but it is not that simple. We can’t always be nice and ask, there are cases when direct orders are needed. Yes there are. In case of fire, I would definitely say “Hey, the house is on fire, exit this way, NOW“. But the point is: If you have a lot of life-threatening panics at your workplace, then it is not a communication problem.
Saying (unexpectedly) “if you want” is nice and pleasant, but it will become naïve if repeated. I would like to create an environment where I don’t need to say “if you want” — instead everyone in the situation would say “that’s what I want“.
No matter if it is about toddler toys, doing the dishes or fixing that tough SW issue, it is about creating intrinsic motivation to act. The way we communicate and initiate the situations, has tremendous effect on the outcome.