G.R.E.T.A. is a useful tool for improving communication with customers, clients, partners and other people who don't "report to you" but hold very different points of view.

G.R.E.T.A. A tool for more effective communication

One of the things I love about franchising is that people are often significantly more invested in their business than any manager would ever be. This passion and commitment however can make working relationships more complex.

The dictionary definition of Passion gives you a clue as to why.

Passion - a strong and barely controllable emotion

A lot of business advice, especially around entrepreneurs describes passion. I think Simon Sinek gives us a clue as to why we use the word passion. Because the part of our brain that is responsible for decisions is not responsible for language. So we use the word passion to explain decisions and commitments that we can not fully articulate. If I can't explain to you why I am sticking to this idea, then it must be passion.

However, emotion can get in the way of effective communication, and collaboration. In fact, it's not uncommon for communication to instantly degenerate into some kind of blame based power struggle of opinions. Nothing about that is productive or effective in my experience.

When I share these conversations with other business owners, I am often given advice such as, "Just tell them what to do!", or "Can't you fire them?" Yeah, being the boss is great. The founder is even better. However, as a Franchise owner, I am committed to helping people achieve success, not winning arguments.

If you read Carol Dweck's excellent book Mindset, you will see that very often the thing that drives many entrepreneurs can also hinder effective communication. The focus on "winning" as a form of validating a fragile ego is a cancer that can weaken even the strongest relationships. Dr. Dwecks' work has convinced me that a growth orientation is ultimately the most effective mindset. However, how do you translate that into action?

Do you negotiate with everyone? There are a number of great books out there that try to help close this gap. Getting More by Steward Diamond is one of my favorites, but there are many more such as Getting to Yes, or the excellent series on High Stakes Negotiation.

Becoming a better negotiator I do believe makes you a better communicator, but not all communications are negotiations, especially where neither side can "just walk away".

Studying negotiations lead me to the book Crucial conversations which has some excellent tools for understanding better how people communicate, but more importantly how two very smart, capable, decent people can look at the exact same set of facts and derive two totally different meanings from those events.

People aren't crazy. They are story tellers. We derive meaning from stories. And the number of stories that can be generated from a given set of facts is as varied as the number of people on the planet. Unfortunately, because humans put such a high value on certainty, we often generate our story then cling to it.

Consider this. The old cliche goes, "hindsight is 20 / 20". But is it? I was standing in a dugout one time next to Phil. Phil was calling pitches and I was trying not to bite my nails. The batter for the other team hit a sharp ground ball right to the second baseman who was unable to make the play. I immediately lamented that I had the second baseman out of position. Phil turned to me, with some frustration, and said, "You always do that" "Do what?" I replied shocked at the intensity of his emotion. "You always act like it should have been obvious ahead of time." I was stunned. "Well wasn't it?" "No!" Phil said emphatically. "No it isn't always obvious ahead of time."

I later came across the work of some university professors. I apologize for providing this apocryphally, but I can't recall where I read this or who did the work. But they took a series of civic building projects (the United States has accumulated a rather impressive set of these nationally over the last 50 years). What these projects had in common was that they all went horribly wrong somehow. In the post mortem, the reports made it sound as if it should have been obvious to anyone paying attention what was going wrong and why. Well, these projects also had excellent documentation and archival of emails, notes, memo's and timelines.

So the researchers recreated the order of events, but with completely new people. These new people were just as qualified. The main hypothesis the researchers wanted to test was this. Was it obvious? Should they city councilors, city planners, and building managers have known what was going to go wrong as the early signs came in.

Turns out, no one knew. It was not obvious. As they recreated presenting the facts and communication in the order that it originally was produced, the teams went on to make pretty much the same mistakes. They conclusion? Hindsight is often a story we make up about what has happened. It is not a fact, or obivous. It is just the narrative that gives an event meaning to us. It feels obvious because it is bolstered by our love of certainty and our need for understanding. Now we know.

But if people can make up many different stories, how does that help us communicate better?

As it turns out, just knowing this foundational to being able to communicate more effectively.

The book that helped me develop this understanding the most was Verbal Judo by @TODO:Author. The book was written by a police officer who was reprimanded his first week on the job. You see, he arrested and brought in everyone who didn't do what he told them to do. You see, in our society Police are often imbued with the hat-trick of super powers. They have the legal right, moral authority, and very often the physical ability to force you to comply with their requests.

And in this officers experience, he learned that every time he relied exclusively on those "powers", that was almost always the worst possible choice he could make. He discovered, and then shared, that there are better ways to work with people. From his book, I realized that my business is the same. I don't want to "win" arguments. I want to create alignment so we can work together to solve problems and make our businesses better.

That vision and background lead me to create the tool kit we call "GRETA". G.R.E.T.A. stands for Goal, Roal, Empathy, Tone, and Approach. Let explain how these tools work.

G is for Goal

If an emotionally charged, or difficult situation presents itself I have to be careful not to charge in head first and try to "win" the argument. I need to take a breath and get clear what my goal is. I once had a franchise owner who was upsetting his neighbors. Believing that is was "noble" to have the hard conversations, I picked up the phone and called him to tell him what everyone thought of him.

How do you think that call went? Not well is an understatement. Yes, it definitely was a hard conversation, but it was also completely unnecessary. I had no goal, not target, no aim to that call. I told myself I was responding to complaints from other owners and it was my responsibility to fix it, but in truth I was reacting. A response should be oriented toward achieving some purpose that moves your business, or your relationship forward.

So step one is to get a clear goal.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes, you have to step back and abstract a larger goal from the immediate problem.

Here's an example of when it worked well.

A franchise owner sent a rather nastily worded email to our controller accusing her of overcharging him for royalties. She was naturally very upset and defensive. Who wouldn't be. As we talked through the GRETA process we could see that her goal was to provide accurate billing. By the way. I highly recommend you think of GRETA as a team process, a conversation to have with a co-worker, boss, or mentor - someone who knows you well enough to understand the issue at hand, but removed enough to have perspective and the freedom to see other possibilities.

By focusing on accurate billing, that would protect both her, and the franchisee. If he was trying to get out of paying royalties, accurate billing would solve the problem. If we had made a mistake, then our commitment to accurate billing would allow her to save face and correct the mistake. So we picked a goal that did not directly address the franchise owners accusations, but underpined both parties. They both wanted the numbers to be right.

R is for Role

The next step in the greta process is to ask, "what role should I assume in this conversation". I picked up this idea from a friend of mine who runs a large construction company. It seems pretty obvious but through out our lives, and our days, we all adopt different roles with different demeanors. Despite the advice "to just be yourself" the truth is (and the social science supports) we are many different people at different times. I take "just be youself" to be an appeal to be authentic. I am not crafting my words to tell people what they want to hear. However, I have different responsibilities to different groups and I have to factor those people - who can not be present into the conversation.

which role

Another way to look at a Role is to answer this question, "Who else is effected by this conversation who can't be present to represent themselves"? The idea is to remove your personal ego from the equation and to find a handle on how you can be an agent that represents other interested parties.

Here are some examples. I had a call with a vendor who had made a mistake and shipped some material to the wrong address. This kept happening. My goal was pretty straight forward. I needed them to commit to putting a system or check in place to stop this kind of mistake from happening, both for our sake and for theirs.

Then I asked, "what role can I play here?" Am I the angry client who has lost time on a project? Am I a mentor coaching a smaller business to higher quality? Or am I another business owner who often has to coach his own team to eliminate mistakes?

My gut told me that playing the card of friend was the right thing to do. I wanted them to improve. I was rooting for them. While the incident frustrated me, my overall goal was our mutual success.

In the incident of the billing dispute, I encouraged our controller to adopt the role of Financial Controller, but focus on all the stake holders who care about accurate billing. All the other franchise owners want to know their bills are accurate. The investors in the business also care. So does our auditor, and our CPA. A lot of people are counting on her to get the billing accurate. If there is a problem, only she can fix it.

Instead of feeling defensive, she felt like the empowered steward of an important piece of business information.

A good role can do that for you. It can remove your ego from the equation and allow you to adopt a demeanor that is more empowering, and will truly benefit other people.

E is for Empathy

Of all the steps, this one is the secret sauce. However, I don't list it first, because if you don't know what your goal is, and you do not have a healthy frame of mind for your role in this little play, it is extremely difficult to see the other persons point of view.

Empathy here means something very specific. Can you articulate, in words, how the other person feels, and how they see this situation?

For my friend at the supply company, they were feeling embarrassed and frustrated. They were worried I would call them and yell at them.

The billing dispute? Of course the owner was angry, and frustrated. He felt cheated. How would you feel if you felt you had overpaid on a contract and no one brought it to your attention?

Being able to understand the story the other person is telling is absolutely crucial to effecting positive change and having a productive conversation. When people do not feel understand real communication is hard to achieve. Even when they are understood it is hard to achieve.

The secret to concisely, and effectively understanding the Empathy for the other person is to use this statement:

They feel (fill in the emotion) because (fill in the reason).

A shockingly large number of conflicts and disagreements can be distilled down to this single sentence.


  • J feels embarrassed because his team made a mistake.

  • T feels angry because he was charged too much.

Just because you state the reason, does not mean you must agree with the reason. It just means you acknowledge it and are aware of it. Once you are aware of it, you can address it. It is extremely difficult to move any conversation forward if the person you are talking to does not feel like you understand them.

T is for Tone

This is why the next thing you have to do is make sure that your tone, the way you speak, matches the role you have taken. My sister has her Phd in neurobiology. She was explaining to me that while words can carry a specific meaning, tone conveys emotionality which can radically alter that meaning.

David Spade had a hilarious comedy skit on the utility of the word "Dude". By changing the tone of the word he was able to generate dozens of different meanings. Zig Ziglar famously had sales people repeat the sentence, "I did not say she stole the money", placing a different emphasis on each word, thus generating 8 different meanings. For example, if you say, "I didn't say she stole the money" - that implies someone else said it. But if you say, "I didn't say she stole the money.", that implies you did something else, like write the accusation down.

Matching our tone to our role is crucial, because in emotionally charged situations people are superb at detecting inconsistencies in behavior and words. This why being authentic is so crucial. Having a role that benefits others can help you pick the right tone.

The tone I used with the vendor was friendly, open, and honest. I spoke to him like a peer, not a client or like some hot shot from a bigger company.

Our controller? She was friendly and helpful - if someone has a question about billing, she's eager to make it as accurate as possible.

A is for Approach

I believe the approach is important. First, GRETA is much more memorable as an acronym if it ends with an A then GRET - ending with a T. Second however, and the real reason is that it reminds you to put all this information into Action. Once you have a goal, you know the role you will play, how the other person feels and why, you know the tone you will use, you can formulate an approach to resolve the issue.

For our billing dispute? Our controller sent back a very pleasantly worded email that went something like,

"thank you for bringing this to my attention. Let's take a look and see what's going on."

Let’s just say that email differed radically from the first draft she wrote.

When I spoke to the vendor, I was direct, honest, but understanding. I said, “Hey I understand these things happen, but what can we do together to prevent this from happening in the future and save us both some heart burn.”


Not every problem can be solved by GRETA. However, in my experience it goes a long way toward solving the rushing mindeset. What do I mean by rushing? Very often we are in such a hurry to get our point across we "rush in" to explain ourselves. Also, there are some people, with a fixed mindset who use every conflict as an opportunity to validate their ego.

This tool kit won't work if you're in a hurry or you need your ego massaged.

This tool kit might however, give you a new way to approach difficult situations, or situations made difficult by decent people who are emotionally charged.

Give it a spin, see if it works for you.


So what happened in my examples?

With the billing, everything worked out. We don’t collect royalties on tips paid to employees. There is a process for reconciling employee tips and revenue and the owner had fallen behind in using the system. Our controller and he worked together to clean up the records and he received a refund. Everyone was happy.

With the vendor? It turned out there was a better way to send orders that made it easier to know which orders went to which franchisee.

In almost every instance, I often find that both parties are able to work together to improve the situation. I’d be curious to know what your experience is.

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