Giving instructions to children and others - The Waiter Principle

As part of daily living, all of us are in a position to give instructions to others and we would like those instructions to be followed without any variation. Children have to be given instructions on many issues, seniors at home have to be instructed on their medical routines, people working for us in our homes and offices have to be told what to do for the day etc. Many times we give instructions and assume the person has understood that. Not wanting to sound like a control freak, we don’t repeat instructions. When we come back to check on the work, we find that most or some parts have not been done. 
“I told you to take the pill before meals, why didn’t you?” we scold our parents.
“I asked you to buy three things from the shop and you have bought only two”
“I had asked you to check the document for five things and you missed one”

These are the common dialogues that happen after the event. The person has not completed the task because either they have not understood it or they forgot one of the steps or items. We assume that when we tell someone something, they have understood it. How do you know? The best way to know whether they have understood or not is to follow the Waiter principle.
When we give our order to a waiter in a restaurant, how do we ensure our order has been taken down properly? We ask him to repeat our order to us. This ensures two things. One, we understand what we have ordered and not missed out on something we wanted to eat but not included in it. We also understand the quantities we have ordered. Second, by reading out the waiter knows what his commitment to us is. At this stage, if there is any defect we can correct it. 
We can bring in the same principle when we give instructions to others around us. We can make them repeat the instructions that they heard. By vocalising it, both the parties set the expectations. We now clearly know that they have understood what we wanted them to understand. There is less scope for misunderstanding. 
One reason you get the correct items you have ordered in a restaurant is that the waiter writes it down. Imagine what would happen if he relied on his memory. Our memory is more treacherous than we are willing to acknowledge. Waiter Principle-2 is writing things down leaves even lesser margin for error. Because it is his job, the waiter takes the responsibility of writing it down. We cannot expect people in the house to write down the instructions. They will baulk at the idea. So we should take the responsibility of writing down whatever part can be written down. Before sending someone to the nearby grocery store to buy things, write down the list of items, quantity and give it to them. If you want seniors at home to take medicines to a daily regimen, make a list in bold letters and pin it where they can see. Even in an office environment giving instructions in writing helps to avoid miscommunication. 
The Waiter principle is a useful preventive device to enhance smooth working between people and avoid acrimonious arguments later.

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Tuesday, September 10, 2019 By Sreedhar Mandyam

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