Is Your House on Fire?

Voiced by Amazon Polly

Or is there just a lingering doubt as to if you turned the stove off?

These two questions deserve very different responses. We don’t rush everyone outside and call the fire department if we can just go to the kitchen and make sure the burner is turned off. This severity scaled response may seem obvious at home, but we can forget to apply the same scaling when raising risk and concern with clients.

Regardless of the client that we’re working with, many of us have run into occasions where conveyed risk was received differently than intended.

Recently, a message conveying risk was sent to a client I’m working on near the end of the day. It was then read and received with higher severity than intended when they got into the office in the morning. Because of the time difference, the client had trouble reaching the sender until a few hours later, which caused more unease.

Communication is important in any relationship, and tailoring the method and message to the situation is a big part of that. If a client is known to be (extra) sensitive to risk or the relationship is relatively new, we can’t take the same approach that we may in an established, long term client relationship.

Similarly, choose an appropriate method and message based on the issue’s placement on the “stove -> house fire” continuum. Don’t stop there. Make every effort to ensure that it’s received appropriately as well.

Minor formatting issues in a pull request that your linter didn’t catch? That’s a ‘burner’ question. Just send an email, add a comment, whatever. It’s something that can be dealt with later and doesn’t require immediate attention.

A technical decision that involves a timeline or project risk that hasn’t been communicated previously isn’t quite a house fire, but it’s not a burner being left on either. Something like that probably deserves a phone call. Text and email aren’t guaranteed delivery, not to mention something that important is a conversation that you want to proactively manage, not reactively handle.

If the house is actually on fire, get face to face. Can’t be in person? At least try to make it a video call. Proximity is very important in communication, especially with touchy subjects, but can be approximated with video conferencing. Work out the “how” before there’s a crisis, remembering that many clients use a different video calling tool than we do.

Everyone interprets concern and risk differently. As partners with our clients, it’s important to not only match our message and method to the scaled risk but also ensure it’s received at the appropriate level. The only way to do this is to build a relationship. There may be missteps at the start but course-correct and figure out where on the spectrum they interpret different issues to be, and we can form our messages accordingly.

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