Want Better Communication? Stay on Your Side of the Net

We’ve all been told throughout our lives that communication is the key to making relationships work. And while that’s a nice sentiment and certainly true, it isn’t all that helpful in understanding what we might do differently to improve our relationships with the people we interact with everyday.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately conducting trainings for startup leaders in the nuts and bolts of leadership and management (in essence, Startup Leadership 101).  One of the concepts that seems to make the biggest differences for team members to get along and function well together is the idea of ‘Staying on Your Side of the Net’.  I first learned this idea in Stanford’s Interpersonal Dynamics (AKA Touchy-Feely) class and while the concept may sound squishy, the results are anything but.

What does it mean to ‘Stay on Your Side of the Net’?

Think of a tennis court, and imagine yourself on one side of the net, and the person you’re speaking with on the other side.  On your side of the net is everything that you know with certainty: your thoughts, intentions, feelings and observations.  On the other side of the net are the other person’s thoughts, intentions, feelings and observations.

Your Side   Their Side


Your Thoughts Their Thoughts
Your Feelings


Their Feelings
Your Intentions Their Intentions
Your Observations


Their Observations

Too often, when we communicate, debate and/or give feedback, we ‘Cross the Net’ and state our interpretations and guesses of what the other person is thinking, intending and feeling as if they’re facts.

Here’s an example.  You notice that a team member who used to come in at 9:00am and leave at 8:00pm has started coming in at 10:00am and leaving by 7:00pm.  You say something like: “You’re not as engaged in your work as you used to be.” What is their most likely reaction?

Their reaction will probably begin with negating your claim as false (“yes, I am still engaged in my work”) and end in an argument over whether they are more or less engaged than they used to be.  They’ll likely come up with examples that demonstrate how engaged they are, while you present counter-examples of your own.  The reason for this downward spiral is that you crossed over onto their side of the net by claiming that you know what they’re feeling and intending.  All you actually know for sure is that the time they come in and leave has changed; your idea that their level of engagement has changed is merely your own interpretation of that fact.

Here are some more examples of Crossing the Net:

Stating your interpretations as facts: You just don’t care anymore.
Stating their intentions: You’re trying to get on my nerves.
Stating their feelings: You’re frustrated about this project.
Stating their observations: You obviously realize you’re the only one leaving before 8pm.


And here are some alternatives, each of which exemplifies Staying on Your Side of the Net:

Stating your thoughts as thoughts (not facts): I’ve noticed you’ve been coming in later and leaving earlier, and it makes me wonder if you’re less engaged.
Expressing your own feelings: I’m frustrated that you’ve been coming in later and leaving earlier, and worried about your level of engagement.
Stating your intentions: I’d like to make sure you’re fully engaged.
Directly stating your observations: I’ve noticed that you used to come in at 9:00am and leave at 8:00pm, and lately you’ve been coming in at 10:00am and leaving at 7:00pm.

 Notice that the first set of examples (Crossing the Net) start with the word ‘you’ while the second set of examples (Staying on Your Side of the Net) start with the word ‘I’.  Starting statements with ‘I’ is an effective way to communicate about a problem to another person without accusing them of being the cause of that problem.

A few months ago, I was asked to facilitate a very difficult conversation between co-founders who were no longer getting along. The main things I did during the discussion were (1) set a groundrule for the discussion of staying on your side of the net, and (2) enforce that groundrule. With this one change, the conversation went from what would have surely been an ugly, highly personal, shouting match to a productive, passionate discussion of how best to move the company forward. The co-founders decided to part ways, but they did so in an amicable way that left the company in the best possible position, and the founders feeling satisfied with the path forward.

The Johari Window

The beauty of sharing what’s on your side of the net is that you’re giving someone data that they typically don’t already have.  There’s a 2×2 matrix known as the Johari Window, which is a useful framework for thinking about self-awareness.  Essentially, the idea is that there are things that you know about yourself that others also know about you (the ‘Arena’), things you know about yourself that others don’t know about you (the ‘Façade’), things that you don’t know about yourself that others know about you (the ‘Blind Spot’) and things that neither you nor others know about you (the ‘Unknown’).  Staying on Your Side of the Net is so effective because it helps expand the other person’s Blind Spot by giving them information about themselves that they don’t already have (e.g., the impact they have on you when they engage in certain behaviors), and it helps shrink your Facade by sharing information about you that they didn’t know (e.g., the way you feel about their behavior).

Stay on Your Side!

This one simple framework can make a world of difference in helping you communicate with your colleagues, teams, friends and family members. Anytime you catch yourself about to start a sentence with ‘You’, consider if there’s another way to say the same thing that begins with ‘I’.  I’d say you’d have to be pretty closed-minded not to at least give this a try… but then I’d be crossing the net.

One Comment on “Want Better Communication? Stay on Your Side of the Net”

  1. Paresh says:

    I agree with this.

    One more point I would like to add here, is that when you want to talk to your employees, talk with concrete data in your hand. Like the example Dave has given – you come at 10 and go at 7.

    Furthermore, I think it should be the results which matter, and whatever we talk to employees should relate to results. E.g. since you come late and go early, that hampers your daily time logs, and hence company suffers in earnings.

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