Communicating Across Time Horizons

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There was a time in my life when I sold life insurance. Well, to be frank, I tried to sell life insurance. With little success.

And while I didn't sell any insurance, I did learn a thing or two, and I'd like to explore one of them with you today - time horizons.

Some of the prospective policyholders I met could visualize themselves well into the future, say 20 or 30 years into the future. They were obviously good prospects for life insurance. Others focused more on the coming year or few years. To them, something that might or might not happen 20 years ahead was a pure abstraction with little relevance.

Now, let's put these perspectives into a communication context: When you send or receive messages, do you factor in the time horizon of the person who sent you a message or gets one from you?

Let's consider an example that's similar to my experience. Say you're trying to sell mutual funds to a new investor. You enthusiastically point out the possibility of getting rich by saving every month for perhaps 25 years. But the person across the desk looks at you with a blank face. Perhaps he's thinking to himself that the money could be used to pay down the loan on his truck in three years instead of five, and then he could buy a new one much sooner.

Or, consider the time horizons that involve communication between managers and the people who report to them. Generally speaking, the higher you are in a hierarchy, the further ahead you're expected to look and anticipate.

So, how do you handle messages to people who have different time horizons than you? First, be aware of the possibility that they may exist. Ask a few probing questions that help you find differences.

Second, use visualizations that help others imagine the future, and how they'll fit into that picture. For example, companies that sell retirement packages spend a lot of money trying to get us to imagine ourselves basking in luxury on a tropical beach.

Third, don't just talk about that future time in an abstract way. Personalize it by explaining how it will affect the person you're addressing. Give that person a stake in the future you foresee.

Fourth, get to that future time in steps, not in one big jump. Don't ask a 25 year old to visualize where she'll be at age 65. Instead, talk to her about the typical life styles at ages 35, 45, 55, and 65.

Finally, put the processes into reverse if someone else asks you to visualize a time horizon that's unfamiliar. Ask yourself what kind of assumptions and visions he brings to his scenario, and adjust accordingly.

In summary, different time horizons can be a barrier to good communication. To overcome these potential barriers you start by first recognizing the possibility of their existence. If they do exist you can use visualization, personalization, and a series of time steps rather than one big jump.

Robert F. Abbott writes and publishes Abbott's Communication Letter. Learn how you can use communication to help achieve your goals, by reading articles or subscribing to this ad-supported newsletter. An excellent resource for leaders and managers, at:

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