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.
When you communicate, Perception is Reality.
Everything is in the eye of the beholder
That is a hard idea to accept. As a developer and data professional, I have faith in data and numbers. However, I have (grudgingly) accepted that with communications, perception is critically important. The reason is people understand and judge information based on what they can understand, and what they believe. A story is just as important as data. Data that is hidden, or that is hard to understand, is given less importance. Therefore people judge based on appearances: a person is judged based on the way they dress, their posture, personal cleanliness, speaking style, whether they mumble, etc.
Buck’s suggestion is elegant: know my goals, and do what is necessary to get to them. When I communicate I should use whatever tools I have to get my message across. Humor. Intuitive language. Clear analogies. Animated diagrams. Wear a suit. Pranks. Whatever is effective. If I want my message to get across, I should first figure out what the point is that I’m trying to make. I should work backwards from there. This becomes a cycle: pick my goals, change my communications to meet them, and repeat.
My speech should be tailored to who I’m speaking to. This is important, because people have very different ways of absorbing information. At one extreme is someone who is dispassionate; they prefer to discuss an idea neutrally, as if discussing a theoretical concept. At the other end are people who won’t respect me unless I step up and forcefully present my idea; respect is given to people who interact personally.
In either case, the lesson for a presenter is: adapt yourself to your audience. Don’t let you become a barrier to your own ideas. The idea is paramount; it is the point. If the idea is attacked, don’t respond personally. If you respond personally, you are giving the other person control of the conversation; they now know how to control your reactions and manipulate you. One tactic during debates is to get your opponent upset. Upset people don’t think clearly.
Sound stressful? It is. Most engineers I work with are far more comfortable making stuff run than communicating how, why, and what they are doing. That difference is stressful. Stress is the difference between perception and reality.