The three laws of business communication
Author: John Held | June 1, 2019
When we originally developed our email course, Modern Business eCorrespondence (MBeC), we built the course around 6 rules for writing emails. To be more precise, we felt these were more “principles” than rules–they were a good “standard” to follow rather than the imposed behavior rules imply. Even so, during a client meeting, one of the team members talked about the “6 Rules of emails,” and that didn’t sit very well with the L&D Lead in the meeting–“they make it seem like you have to follow them.”
This statement set me off on a process of reflection and thinking about whether or not these principles were really “rules”–or were they even “principles”?
As we in ABT began to discuss this issue further, one of our trainers, Wojciech Szupelak, saw that the 6 principles of MBeC actually divided into 2 major categories: focus on relationships and focus on results. Another trainer, Joanna Cooper, added to that the need to use the appropriate channel when communicating various information–and the ability to use the appropriate channel–is directly related to the available resources of the organization.
So we now had 3 categories that neatly mapped into 3 words beginning with the letter “R”: Relationships, Results and Resources.
At this point, Wojciech, with his creative talents, put these 3 points into a verbal framework, which, in honor of Mr. Asimov, became “The 3 Laws of Business Communication.” These are not “rules” that you should follow, and they are not “principles” that are appropriate behavior. They are “Laws” like Newton’s “Laws of Physics.” If you violate these laws, you will fail in your communication.
The 1st Law: Build Relationships
All Business Communication should build relationships–or at least not damage them.
Human beings are relational creatures. Everything that we are and all that we do is defined by relationships–even hermits are defined as people who eschew relationships and contact with other people. And the foundation of all business is the establishment of a relationship and leveraging that relationship to conduct business.
When we talk about online buying, one could argue it doesn’t involve any relationship between the buyer and the seller. However, the successful online sales organizations–such as eBay, Amazon, Allegro, etc.–became successful based upon…their customer service. The way they follow up with their customers, understand them, meet their needs–these actions are how these companies have “built relationships” with their clients.
Finally, there is the issue of cultural competence. Do you adjust your communication to the culture you are working with? Do you know how that culture treats and builds relationships?
I was working with a non-profit many years ago. My boss was an American, and we were working in Central Europe to set up subsidiaries of the organization. My boss talked a lot about being “culturally aware,” yet when we had meetings with local partners, he would always assume they had understood what he had said the same way an American would understand it.To be fair, as an American, I understood exactly what he was talking about.
However, in the following months after the meeting, as I followed up and asked questions to understand how the local partners had understood what was said, it quickly became apparent that they had understood little of what my boss had said–and in some cases they had completely misunderstood what he had said.
These misunderstandings caused conflict and created adversarial relationships between the American supporters of the organization and the local partners. It was only through continued focus on understanding and a commitment to building relationships and partnerships these misunderstandings were resolved and the cooperation between the organizations could grow. And these conflicts could have been avoided had my boss taken the time at the beginning to build a better relationship with our local partners.
The 2nd Law: Achieve Results
All Business Communication should achieve concrete business results without violating the 1st Law.
As humans, everything we do is motivated by a goal. We take a bath because we want to be clean (or we’re tired of someone nagging us). We may have started smoking from “curiosity” or “to belong to some group.” Whatever we do, there is some goal driving us–either consciously or unconsciously.
If we are talking about business, then the organization must achieve its goals–they must make progress in developing both their organization and the tools that they use to meet the needs of their customers and clients. And one goal every organization has is “to make money.” There must be progress in both of these areas, operations and finance, if the organization is going to survive and grow.
There are many communication channels that we use to achieve our goals: face-to-face interactions, phone calls/video calls, emails, presentations, instant messenger, etc. It is through these channels that we have to drive the activity of the organization. To talk about “effective” communication, we need to talk about “building relationships and achieving results.”
An area where we see room for improvement among our clients is in delivering presentations. When we ask participants what the goal of their presentation is, we receive answers like, “to share,” “to present,” “to talk about,” or “to discuss.” Though those are goals, they are goals presenters have for themselves–they aren’t formulated in a way that focuses on results…on what the presenter wants to accomplish. In other words, the presenter needs to focus on what the audience of the presentation should do.
When the presentation is over and the audience is leaving, what should they do? If they shouldn’t do anything, then why did you give the presentation? What is the result? What is the “concrete business result” of your presentation? It may only be “to get confirmation that we will continue with the project.” Whatever it is, it needs to move the company forward–otherwise, it’s a waste of time.
And one final thought, the goal might be to build relationships among the team. That is a legitimate goal. And what you want the audience to do after your presentation is to talk more freely to one another, to speak openly about what they think, and to work together in a more cooperative manner. To do that, they need to feel better about working with each other. So your presentation may focus on helping them feel better about their cooperation–but that’s not your goal. The improved cooperation is your goal.
The 3rd Law: Use Resources Well
All Business Communication should make use of the resources available in such a way as to achieve the 1st and 2nd Laws in the best possible manner.
Whenever I ask people, “What is the best channel for communicating information,” they always reply “face-to-face.” So the next question is, “Then why don’t you get on a plane and fly to India for a 1.5-hour tactical meeting?” The answer is obvious: it costs too much and takes too much time.
Communication channels, such as face-to-face, video conference, instant messenger, email, etc., are all a function of resources–particularly the 3 primary resources of people, time and money. Which channel we use depends up the relationship we have, the result we are trying to achieve, and the financial resources we have available. Moreover, the channel we use should not only take into account the relationship we have, but it should also help us build that relationship–to make it stronger.
So question: When you receive an email from somebody, how often do you stop to ask yourself, “What channel should I use to answer this email to build my relationship with this person and to get done what needs to be done? …should I write an email–or would it be better to make a call? …or use instant messenger?” Recently, I’ve noticed that I will receive an email with a request, and the best reply is either a reply on an instant messenger or text message. Sometimes I get a call and it requires an email, either as a follow-up or as a reply to the request.
Often this change of channel happens when I’m in the middle of using another channel–I’m replying to an email and suddenly realize it would be faster and more efficient to reply by instant messenger or by making a call.
So, for you, to help with your communication, take a minute right now and think about how well your communication builds relationships with your stakeholders. What can you do to improve it. And whenever you are communicating, ask yourself the question, “What do I want this person/these people to do?” And then think about the best way of achieving that goal.
These 3 Laws regarding Building Relationships, Achieving Results and Using Resources are not just good ideas. They are how we function as human beings. You violate them at your peril. On the other hand, with consistent application of the 3 Laws to your Business Communication, your business will grow and your organization will become more productive–and a more enjoyable place to work.