Do you come with user instructions?

The most important thing in communication, they say, is hearing what isn’t said.

Published: 13th August 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th August 2017 07:15 AM   |  A+A-

The most important thing in communication, they say, is hearing what isn’t said. What if you could help people hear better by amplifying the sound of your silence? A girl recently sent me her personal user manual to read. You know the manuals you get with liquidizers and music systems that carry explicit descriptions of the products and instructions on how to use them? Well, a personal user manual is like that, except that the product it talks about is you. It lays down your features and tells readers how to manage you best.

It makes perfect sense. We spend so much time and effort trying to “read” other people, clutching at clues thrown up by their sun sign, moon sign, handwriting slant, MBTI type, and even their blood group (if we reside in Japan or Korea). Eventually, if we’re lucky, we figure out the personalities and preferences of the people we interact the most with, outside the immediate family (think classmates/ teachers/ colleagues/ bosses/ in-laws). But it’s an arduous journey of trial and error, with confusion, frustration, depression, even heartbreak marking the miles.

Imagine if we could bypass all the miscommunication and misery by just reading a document that had the answers to all our questions. Wouldn’t life be smoother than James Bond’s lines? Well, apparently it can be. As one Laurence J. Stybel discovered in 2003.

Stybel, who runs a career-management firm in Boston, came up with the idea of a personal user manual after he noticed that no device, no matter how cheap, comes without operating instructions. Why should people be different, he thought, and shot off a manual of his own. Pleased with his efforts, he told his clients to each prepare an instruction guide for colleagues that would lay out their strengths and weaknesses and explain what they liked and what they didn’t.  

One of his doctor clients took the advice to heart and created a detailed “how to manage me” manual. Knowing his own love for waffling, he included points like, “Ask me to ‘get to the point.’ If I use analogies, ask me to be more concrete.” He also advised his readers to supply him with more rather than less information, and not to test the waters before making recommendations.

To ensure that he didn’t miss anything, he shared his draft with his colleagues and included their insights in the final paper (like his tendency to fall back on stats when uncomfortable with an idea). Finally, when he hired someone to fill a vacancy at the hospital, he gave the chap the user manual to read before he joined. The recruit later said his respect for the doc went up manifold when he read the document, and that he intends to write a similar manual for his employees when he becomes boss.

Do we need to wait to be boss to write a manual of our own? I think not. Not in a world of remote offices where even a birthday greeting is conveyed in a typed sentence rather than a smile. It’s a good idea to start small, with basic questions (and answers) like “What do I value”, “What frustrates me” and “What’s the best way to communicate with me?” If you see communication getting easier at the workplace, exhort your mates to write their own manuals. And forward yours to your in-laws. My to-be daughter-in-law just did.

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