It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. There’s a lot of advice out there about client management, and much of it hails the benefits of managing expectations, setting boundaries, and under-promising things. But while those are always good strategies, the devil, as they say, is in the details. Luckily there’s an entire field of psychology full of research nuggets we can apply to the realm of managing clients.
Pronouns and Power Dynamics
James W. Pennebaker does research on the smallest and most important words in our language: function words. While you get subject matter from content words, you also subconsciously collect information about who is giving you that information from the in-between bits known as function words. Function words include mostly things like articles (a, an, the, some) and prepositions (to, from, with), but pronouns have been shown to be particularly revealing. How a speaker uses their pronouns (I vs. we, us vs them, etc.) has been shown to predict romantic connection and even tell if people are lying. And, in terms of client management, pronouns may hold they key to shifting a power dynamic.
Pennebaker’s research shows that when someone is communicating with someone they consider to be socially “above” them, they use many pronouns, especially ones that refer to themselves. Here’s an example:
I was just wondering if I could push back my deadline another day. We are having some unexpected problems with our research but I will send you a draft by the end of the week. Let me know if that works for you.
(7 speaker-inclusive pronouns in 43 words)
Whereas when someone emails someone they consider socially “below” them, power-wise, fewer pronouns are used, and especially few pronouns that refer to themselves:
End of the week will be fine, thanks for the update. Apologies for the research, glad to hear it’s back on track. Contact Rebecca if you run into any further problems and she will sort you out.
(0 speaker-inclusive pronouns in 37 words)
Being aware of this tendency to use more pronouns when talking up the social ladder and using fewer of them when talking down can help you position yourself as a partner with your clients. Use language that includes yourself by use of pronouns and your client will feel more socially square with you. And although it’s easier to edit written communication, the same rule applies for face to face or phone conversations. A little awareness can go a long way.
Try this: Compare the number of pronouns in your client’s written communication to your responses. A similar amount indicates you are on the same level (or that you’re both jockeying for power). If you find yourself using too few, edit your messages to make sure the you’re intended message is the one you’re expressing.
Repetition works, and so does repetition. The illusory truth effect is a shortcut mechanism in our minds that acts as a substitute for a more detailed decision making process. Essentially, we give more weight to ideas and concepts that we hear more often.
In a study that asked participants to rate the trustworthiness of a statement, researchers found that repeated statements were consistently rated as more trustworthy than similar statements only given once.
Dale Carnegie’s famously said, when giving a speech:: “Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you’ve said.” Some of the most common advice for client management is to manage expectations by being specific about scope, budget, hours, etc. With that in mind, a good rewrite of this quote might be: ‘Tell them what you’re going to do, do it, then tell them you’ve done it.’
But there is a more specific application to The illusory truth effect as well: if you need to convince a client of something, repetition might be the key. So if you really need to persuade someone that lime green text on a red background isn’t the right choice for their beanie babies resale website, tell them what does work and then make sure they hear it several times from several different sources.
Good old Carnegie is further backed up by the serial position effect, which hold that people tend to remember the first and last things you say better than what you say in the middle. Make the beginning and the end of all your client communication count.
Tell Them Why
Social psychology shows the power of telling someone why you need something, as shown in the somewhat-famous-if you’re-into-that-sort-of-thing study about a Xerox line.
In the study participants tried to cut in line at a copy place and gave three different explanations for why:
1. Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?
2. Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?
3. Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?
In the case of the first excuse (“because I’m in a rush”), 94% of people allowed them cut in line. But in a more surprising result, even the third excuse (“because I have to make copies”) had a 93% success rate, but only 60% of people using excuse two (“I have five pages”) got to scoot up to the line. Researchers postulated that any reason given with the word “because” has some social weight that cuts through the “mindless” state that we operate in much of the time.
While I wouldn’t recommend the “can I make copies because I have to make copies” approach, telling your clients the reasoning behind decisions or requests is always a good idea, and using the word because can help cut through the noise and get their attention.
Communication is very subjective, and there’s no one-stop-shop for effective client management, but looking more closely at how and why we communicate in and out of the workplace gives us some hints about the many layers of what you say and how you say it.
“Using Communicational Psychology for Client Management” was written by guest author Felix Morgan.
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