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  • Wendy Lynch and Clydette de Groot

The first response probably isn’t what matters.  The rule of three.


In business, time has become our most precious resource. We’re in a hurry. We focus our meetings on getting to the point or reaching a decision. Efficiency is important, but a rushed answer is rarely a quality answer.

Consider this. Imagine being asked: What are the most important goals for your team next year? What qualifications are you looking for in the next person you hire? What key messages do you want to deliver in your upcoming presentation to leadership?

Will you have an instantaneous, complete response? Not likely. Unless you’ve already had a chance to think about it, your immediate, automatic response won’t be what really matters.

It’s not that you don’t know (or can’t discover) the answer. It’s that your brain hasn’t had time to consider the question. Amazingly, given time and space, it doesn’t take long for our brains to get to what matters and respond with high-quality information.

In Get to What Matters, we discuss the ‘rule of three’: a practice of allowing another person to slow down and peel back the layers of what matters. To do this, we paraphrase their first response and pose the question again “how else” or “what else”. Again, we paraphrase and invite them to share “anything else?” that might be important. In our experience, the first responses are more pragmatic and obvious. The third response is closer to what matters.

Here’s an example. A prospective client, Jody, was interested in purchasing a service but had been reluctant to finalize a deal. The sales lead, Alisha, had spoken to Jody multiple times and couldn’t figure out what the barrier might be. All signals were positive, but progress was stuck. So, Alisha scheduled a meeting with Jody and asked “How will you know this is the right decision?”

Jody’s first response was about logistics: integrating this service into other activities her company was doing. When asked again, “how else will you know?,” Jody again identified more logistics: whether the timing of implementation could fit into their fiscal calendar.

When asked one more time, “is there any other way you would know this is the right decision,” Jody said semi-jokingly: “well, I’ll know if I don’t get fired.” In this third response, Jody realized (consciously for the first time) that she was nervous about whether her new boss would support this decision. So, they arranged a full presentation to the boss the following week and the project moved forward.

The rule of three prompted a deeper level of discovery about what really mattered.

Next time you consider a new issue with your client or coworker, give them the gift of brain space. Invite them to go a little further in their thinking. Take that extra couple minutes to apply the rule of three and help them discover what matters. You’ll both be more satisfied with the outcome.


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