18 July 2011
People conflict. It happens to all of us, eventually.There are many reasons for this: miscommunication, style differences, distrust, fear, hubris, arrogance. When we encounter this professionally, we have to find a way to resolve the situation, to keep going. This requires knowing how to communicate in difficult situations.
“I can tell what kind of person a man is by finding out what makes him angry, and what makes him laugh.”– Abraham Lincoln.
Take the measure of each person. Let’s say I meet somebody from a different development team. How do they treat someone who can do nothing for them? Do they ignore them? Treat them rudely? That means they are a user; they exploit people for their own ends, and are less worthy of respect.
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” – Stephen Covey
Conversations are like icebergs: what we see is only the top. There are many hidden thoughts and motivations behind any sentence. Listening is critically important. If we do not understand the crosscurrents and subtext underneath what is being said, then we are missing most of the conversation. Being situationally aware is incredibly important. This is one of my greatest challenges, because I spend a lot of my time working with machines. There are some useful similarities between people and machines. In either case, we need to know where to look, and where to focus our attention.
Active listening is a great tactic. The goal of active listening is to understand what the other person is trying to say. I do this by asking leading or clarifying questions, or re-phrasing the other person’s idea. This does two things. First, it tells the other person that I’m paying attention. Second, it helps me make sure I understand what the other person is saying. This is similar to the Socratic method of teaching, which is used extensively in medicine. Lastly, having a better understanding of everyone’s position before I speak gives me a lot of control over the conversation.
“Never argue with an idiot. The audience can’t tell the difference.” - Mark Twain
Make sure conversations don’t get personal. If I say ‘you’ in a conversation, then that is a good sign the conversation is breaking down. Use ‘I’ statements as well. For example, there’s a big difference between saying “SuperWidgets are useless” and “I can’t see why a SuperWidget would be useful to me”. The former invites an attack , the latter a dialogue. In both cases my belief is the same: I don’t see why a SuperWidget would help me, so why bother getting one?
Sadly, some people want conversations to be an emotional argument. Logic pisses them off. That is a great reason to use logic. If I can stay calm and logical in the face of emotional manipulation, then I am going to ‘win’ in any conversation. It also gives me a far greater measure of control over where the conversation goes, since I can think ahead and plan. That’s the essence of what to do: be aware of yourself and others, and use knowledge and logic to resolve thorny situations.