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The Five Basic Responses

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I believe all great teams are constantly working on the following four (4) things:

  • Functional Excellence (Tactics, Techniques, Procedures, and/or Standard Operating Procedures [SOPs]).  Said differently, from a tactical perspective, it’s simply getting better at what we do.
  • Physical and Mental Toughness
  • Leadership, Followership, and Teamwork, and the dynamic inside our teams.
  • Warrior Mindset, and the “Want to…” rather than “Have to…” mentality.

When it comes to a warrior mindset, our language matters more than we sometimes realize.  Language matters so much in sales that it is very common for companies to train new people with very specifics sales scripts.  These companies know what language, which types of words, work for what they are trying to do.  Marketing departments spend millions of dollars studying not just colors and logos but also brand language and what words engage customers and partners.  The master interviewer and storyteller, Alex Blumberg has spent his entire adult career being precise with language in telling world class stories.  See his master class here at CreativeLive or a shorter version on YouTube.

I love listening for specific words in conversation.  I also hate when I catch myself using “Have to…” language.  I have to go workout, I have to study, I have to do this or that.  I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do, and neither do you.  The things we do.  The things we choose to do are the things we WANT to do!  If you don’t want to do them, don’t do them.  “Want to…” is warrior language.  “Have to…” is victim language.

In James Pennebaker’s The Secret Life of Pronouns, we learn that people who use less personal pronouns (e.g., I, me, my) and more collaborative pronouns (e.g., we, she, they) become physically and mentally healthier.  Thus (I would argue) more physically and mentally tough.  We also get evidence that lower status people use more I-words and higher status people use more first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our).

As our little wolfpack here at home has grown into their middle school and high school years (high school for Cole in August), Bridget and I listen to dozens of excuses and explanations from our boys.  They want to know why they have to do chores and why they have to eat dinner with their butts in seats and facing forward.  We spend a lot of time scripting respectful/kind language, ensuring they are asking permission, being polite, not cutting each other off, and not having “an answer” for everything.  They are constantly “sea lawyering” us and seem to have a reason for everything.  We referee their piling on, fighting, and them cutting each other down.  In the nature/nurture argument,  we sometimes feel like it all comes down to language in directing right and respectful action.

Thus, we recently decided to implement an oldie-but-goodie:

The Five Basic Responses

I’m not talking about being the gestapo or running a penal colony.  I’m talking about mark 1, mod 0 basic response skills.  They are an old fashioned but effective, time tested, USNA plebe year technique.  And a technique used very effectively in any training environment if what you desire in your team are go-getters, people who attack each day, and who, in the absence of direction, go find out how to make shit happen.

Why and what are the five basic responses?  What immediate behavior and indirect benefit do they train or influence?  And what’s the real world benefit?

  1. yes, sir/ma’am
  2. no, sir/ma’am
  3. aye, aye sir/ma’am
  4. no excuse, sir/ma’am
  5. i’ll find out, sir/ma’am

And this is all.  Khalas. Finis. Done.  There is no other response allowed.  Period.  End of story.  Unless of course YOU ask for more information.  In terms of initial response, these are all that are allowed.  Let’s dig into them.

Yes, sir:  A simple affirmative response.  Not yes, and adding more info that maybe you intentionally omitted.  Yes means yes.

No, sir:  A simple negative response.  Not “no” but let me qualify that.  Not “no” because…  Not “no” but you see it was because…and this person did this…and I thought…  If it’s no, it’s no.

Below Yes and No are my favorites.

Aye, aye sir:  Aye, aye, sir means I understand completely and will comply (go make it happen) with the direction, task, agreement, or whatever.  The responsibility of the senior here is to ensure they’ve provided, checked, and clarified full context, guidance, and desired end-state because your teammate is about to go out and fully-comply with the direction you gave.  Short of negligence, it’s on you if they comply with something other than what you’ve asked.  If you’re clear, you get rapid and effective performance.  If you’re vague then the results will be vague.

I understand and will comply (“wilco” for the military types) demands exceptional teamwork.  You can only “wilco” if you actually understand.  Thus, one of the most powerful things about training this response is it naturally imposes both leader and follower responsibilities.  Transmitting a task or anything shall be accompanied by a technique or heuristic that has always worked well for me: frame, scope, align.  This is a requirement for the leader all of the time, in every scenario, but especially when giving specific direction.  It provides appropriate context.  Framing the full context of the situation, discussing the scope of each person’s influence (and how they can move-the-needle), and getting alignment around the situation.  You are responsible for describing both intent (what are we actually trying to do/some assumptions and how to handle them/some limitations and constraints) and a desired end-state (what does right look like at completion)?  The follower cannot go off and do good work (and comply) without the above.

Similarly, the follower assumes the responsibility to obtain and clarify the guidance, AND fully understand how to deploy the guidance, AND when to come back for additional information/resources.

No excuse, sir:  The ultimate responsibility-taking trainer.  What’s both amazing and true about this process is that there are tons of good/bad/valid/ “reasons” that things happen in any given day.  Inadvertently though, through the five basic responses, we learn that 98% of those things are out of your control.  And thus, there is actually no excuse.  Most importantly, “no excuse, sir” is the response that doesn’t let us off the hook via the litany of reasons/excuses/stories we tell ourselves everyday about tons of things.  When asked why something wasn’t done or wasn’t fully complete or why chores weren’t done 100% complete and the correct way, the only answer is “no excuse.”  Anything other than no excuse such as “oh, I didn’t have enough time” is a cop-out.  You know it and I know it.  There might be a legitimate reason for something but there isn’t an excuse.  Learning to follow a process is a journey, executing a task well is journey.  In using “no excuse, sir” we slowly learn that Turning Pro is about overcoming resistance.  It’s about the ability to produce a desired result through preparation, honest self-assessment, and a consistent, disciplined approach to mastering a craft.

If we choose not to do the above and have 100 reasons why we can’t or don’t, they are assuredly our reasons but also just excuses.  And they give us an “out” which is a selfish approach to our habits because left to our own devices for any given situation we can easily generate new reasons/excuses every second of the day for tons of things.

Using “no excuse, sir” has (2) primary results.  First, we learn the language, mechanism, and feeling (that ughhh, I so have something to say right now) of responsibility (which engenders power and activity and agency).  We see, face, and determine that fine line between fault and responsibility.  Further, it encourages us to see our agency in the process.  What can we affect? 

Secondly, it helps us see that there are so many scenarios where there really are no excuses.  A situation may not be (and in many cases isn’t) our fault at all AND there isn’t an excuse (don’t make excuses for someone else either).  Maybe there actually ARE many situations that are out of our control?  Maybe we have to let those situations just “be” and move on.  Those situations STILL happen though and will continue to happen.   There is no reason to try to justify them or create a story around them or “blame-throw” as I heard a friend say recently.  There simply isn’t an excuse or a reason somethings happen.

Of course, where there is fault or responsibility we learn to accept, dissect where we can adjust, and move on.  There’s still no excuse but there is progress.

I’ll find out, sir: This is basically a Message to Garcia.  Notice that the response isn’t

  • “I’m not sure…” nor
  • “It should be…” (don’t “should-on-me” as I heard another friend recently say) nor
  • “I don’t know…” nor
  • “I sent them an email…” are any of our five basic responses. 

We either, answer affirmatively (yes), answer negatively (no), understand and are going to make it happen (aye, aye, or wilco), or we don’t have an excuse, or we are going to find out and report back. 

All of the responses presume and provide agency (an active role).  The empowering thing is everyone maintains their agency and a self-efficacy (role in producing the result).  You can engage with options when you’re finding out.  When “finding out” you are moving a process forward.  Your team or boss or whomever knows you are out there specifically working on an issue and plan to get back to them.

In discussing this with a business colleague, the obvious question comes up:  Do we do this as adults or more mature experienced, seasoned, professionals?  Of course not in these specific words all of the time.  However, I’d challenge you to consider the concepts and the effects of being specific about your language. 

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