Thursday, February 08, 2007

How to tell people to go away - happy

On our way to Philadelphia this week, my wife and I stopped at a nice hotel en route to use their rest room – like we have done zillions of times before. Except this time, a snippy front desk clerk accosted us and said “Sorry, sir, our rest rooms are for hotel guests only.”

It is, of course, their God-given right to keep people off of their private property. And it doesn’t take Einstein to figure out that other people’s misbehavior has probably led their management to crack down. (They are the first hotel after a l-o-n-g stretch of freeway.) But still, what do you think my wife’s reaction was? “How rude! I’ll never stay at this place again!”

My reaction was a little different, given my interests in communications skills. I was thinking, “She must have to say this to dozens of people a day, and I’ll bet a lot of them get upset with her. That must be no fun!”

So, how do you tell someone that they can no longer use your rest room, and still send them away happy? By acknowledging their needs and speaking to their interests. It’s part of what psychologists call “social cognition” – we quickly divide people into friends and foes, and when you avoid “foe” language, it becomes really hard for people to stay angry. No matter what you are telling them.

So here’s what I would say:

(Step 1: Acknowledge their needs) “I can help you find a public restroom.”
(Step 2: Speak to their interests) “Ours are reserved for hotel guests, but you can find a public one less than half a block away at the Exxon station. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”

Does it feel natural to say things like this? No! It feels like wearing a t-shirt backwards, because our human nature is to protect ourselves and focus on what the other person “can’t” do. But when you learn and practice responses like these for your most challenging situations, everything changes between you and others.

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