A British nurse rode her bicycle to call on a patient, but when she came out of the patient’s home, she found that her bike had been stolen. She reported feeling “gutted” and “quite cross.” But she wrote a note, “Please return my bike. It is old but loved and will be frightened without its owner,” and stuck the note on a lamppost near where the bike had been.

The next day, when the nurse returned to visit the same patient, she found her bike plus a new bike lock. Moreover, a reply note from the bike thief had been stuck under her patient’s doormat, along with keys to the new lock. The thief’s note read, “A great big fat SORRY from the reformed bike thief. (I never missed treated it.)”

Let’s look at the persuasion skill that contributed to this success story.

Although the woman was angry, she apparently waited long enough for her anger to subside so that it didn’t come out in her note. She was apparently able to reflect on what might work best.

Then, having reflected, she composed a message that did not make the thief wrong, and therefore, trigger his resistance. More specifically, while she would have been quite justified in expressing anger and telling the thief what a bad thing he had done, she didn’t. Instead, she made a simple request for return of the bike, including the magic word “please.”

Her note reflected her personality so that the thief could no longer think of her as a nameless, faceless bike owner (if, in fact, he had even thought about the owner at all up to that time). “[M]y bike. It is old but loved.”

To ice the cake, the nurse added a touch of humor, “and will be frightened without its owner.”

I am not naïve enough to believe that this approach would have worked with every thief, but I know for sure that, if the lady had lashed out with anger and name calling, her chances of getting her bike back would have been nonexistent.

What can her good example teach us about incidents that occur in our ordinary daily lives?

First, cool off and think before deciding how to communicate with someone who has made you angry.

Second, “please” really can be a magic word, as your parents told you when you were just a little toddler. Most of us say “please” on autopilot when asking for something simple that we are virtually assured of receiving, as in “Please pass me the butter.”

However, we may hesitate to use that word when asking someone to redress a wrong. It can feel like more than the wrongdoer deserves. It can feel like, I am right and she was wrong, and I am not going to further lower myself by asking her to do something that common decency should demand.

            For that very reason, the wrongdoer may not expect a “please.” It may catch her off guard. So, ask yourself whether you have a greater interest in communicating how wronged you feel by her behavior, on the one hand, or a greater interest in getting that wrong redressed, on the other hand. I don’t make that value judgment for you. I can think of a time when it was so important to me to let someone know how I felt, that I made him wrong, knowingly accepting the fact that this meant I would probably never get restitution. The point is that it was my conscious decision to prioritize the communication interest over the material interest.

But in a situation where you decide correction of the wrong is your highest interest, you might try saying “please,” provided you can do it in a sincere manner that does not sound sarcastic or like a put down. What if you got to lose? Nothing but the interest in letting that person know how bad you think he is, an interest that we have assumed you consciously decided was less than your interest in redess.

Third, it can help to put a real face or personality onto the other person’s radar screen, particularly if the person is a stranger. You don’t have to give sensitive information. In the nurse’s situation, the fact that her bike was old but loved served perfectly.

Finally, a touch of humor can ice the cake. As I’ve written before, in “Consensus and Humor,” we have to be careful with humor. Attempts at humor can be misinterpreted, particularly if they are at the expense of one of the people involved in the situation. But in this case, the nurse made a gentle joke at the expense of her bicycle. It is very difficult to imagine even the most sensitive person taking offense at that.

During the coming week, look for an opportunity when it might serve you to say “please,” to add a personal touch, or include a bit of humor (at nobody’s expense) when making a request of someone, and let me know how it goes.

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