Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Techniques: The Natural Consequences Method of Maintaining and Enforcing Your Boundaries (without being the bad guy)

Its well and good to provide guidelines for common stuff that happens and new approaches to ways to handle issues that pop up. But, there are the occasionally seriously crappy issues and problems that repeat, that you know will happen, and that you get bogged down into. The "Techniques" series that will pop up occasionally are ways that I use to minimize overall craziness, improve efficiency, and you know, GET STUFF DONE.

This week is all about Natural Consequences.


You are dealing with a person who either a) doesn't understand the flow of logic (willfully or ignorantly or willfully ignorantly), or b) understands but needs someone to get mad at so they pick you when things do not go their way, even though logically its clear that the choices they have made are going to result in a situation they don't like.


This tip I take from a very good friend, Mara "the awesome" Kaehn, and I call it what she does, "Natural Consequences." Basically, cause and effect are usually enough logic for most people, but some people will--whether they mean to or not--blame you for the negative results of cause and effect. Natural Consequences is a nice, easy way to prevent that from happening. Basically, you talk to the person and tell them that the Natural Consequences of what they are asking is X if they want Y--or, whatever you are explaining. You break it down into specific actions equaling specific results. You tell it to them as if you have no control over it--forces of nature are what they are (hence the name "Natural" Consequences) and you side with them the best you are able to do so: "Let's kick the butt of these potential consequences together!" This brings you out of direct conflict and into cooperation with them, while establishing that there are cause and effect patterns that they cannot alter.

Sounds easy, right? Ok. Doesn't sound that easy. But, with practice, it is pretty easy. The purpose is to make it clear that there are circumstances beyond the control of that person and yourself, and that you are a partner with them to prevent the bad circumstances from happening.

It's possible, of course, that this is not exactly true; for example, the person pestering you may well have a point that you can stop everything you are doing and do what they ask even if they failed to meet the required conditions that trigger the Natural Consequences. An enormous amount of bother--for you and other people--could be had to accomplish what they want to accomplish. However, Natural Consequences is a way of maintaining boundaries you have established while taking the "blame" for enforcing those boundaries off of you. This doesn't mean you specifically lie to them, but you do lay out the discussion in absolutes. "If you get the article for the newsletter in past Friday there's nothing we can do--it won't make the Wednesday newsletter release. How can I help you get what you need gotten in by Friday?" is a lot easier to sell than "You have to get the request in by Friday to make the following Wednesday newsletter. If you don't, you won't be in the newsletter until the week after."

Now many a person confronted with Natural Consequences will look at this as an escalation challenge. This is why the second part of Natural Consequences can help: when you state the conditions of Natural Consequences, you include what the escalation path is, or that there is no possible escalation path.

In our example above regarding the newsletter, a savvy person trying to deliver copy to you on Monday is going to suggest that since you're in charge of the cut-off you can make an exception for them. This is why when you are explaining the Natural Consequences of their action--turning in the copy late means they miss the next newsletter--that you include an escalation path or a method to diffuse the need for an escalation path (especially if no escalation exists). In this particular case, you have a couple of options: 1) Tell them that is totally possible but they need to get permission from your boss and the other folks invested in the newsletter to do it to avoid any concerns of other contributors who may be bumped or get less space by someone turning in their content late, and be very helpful to get them the info and how to do the escalation so when they do escalate, they have nothing bad to say about you. 2) If the copy is already sent to wherever it's supposed to go, and there's no way to alter it (short of spending more money/delaying the release), tell them that. Then give them info for your boss and anyone else overseeing the newsletter in case they choose to ask questions/escalate.

Even if you ARE or can be the final authority on the item, always have someone higher up than you to send them to--if they don't have someone to be pointed at, who knows how high above your head they'll go, and no one wants to have a Director come at them with complaints because of a newsletter.

Finally, when you're done with them, immediately TELL the person or persons to whom you've sent them what is up; that they will be approached. You can give a recommendation on how you recommend it be dealt with, but a) be sure that it's very civil and polite because b) some people, even trusted ones like your boss or a peer, may send your recommendation to them as part of their explanation of why they cannot have something they want.

Sometimes in using this technique, instead of pointing to an escalation path, you might instead (or in addition) point them to an authority on the topic. For example, you can argue that people cannot hold their breath for 30 minutes until you are (to excuse the pun) blue in the face, but sometimes people need an authority figure and/or subject matter expert to make the case for you. In that case, you can refer the person to research, Wikipedia, or a human being subject matter expert...whatever you think will work, is polite, and has the information they require.

The overall theory behind Natural Consequences is to make yourself an ally of the person asking to violate your boundaries, and give them information and presentation that makes them feel they have options and you are on their side. Even if you pretty much lividly hate what they're asking for, using this technique is not only the civil way to deal with the issue, but it will often make the issue go away and them think more highly of you afterward.

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