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June 2009

Volume 24 Number 06

{End Bracket} - Think Before You Speak

By Steven M. List | June 2009

"What we've got here is failure to communicate." Remember that line from Cool Hand Luke? It's one of the great movie lines of all time, I think. And it's something I keep in mind when working with development teams, particularly agile teams.

At the core of any effectively functioning team is an ability to communicate effectively. Effective communication is frequently misunderstood to mean that you should say what you're feeling or thinking, when you're thinking it or feeling it, and let the other guy just deal with it. Or, hold it in until you're ready to explode, and then explode all over everyone. Well, needless to say, neither of these represent effective communication.

So how do I define effective communication? Any communication in which meaning is exchanged, people are treated with respect, and some value is created can be effective.

Exchanging meaning means moving away from pronouncements such as "that won't work"—and engaging in dialogue by tempering the pronouncements—"I think that won't work. Have you considered this?" It means dropping the emotionally charged terms like "that's just stupid!" and moving toward terms that have contextual meaning: "I think that won't work, given the goals of the project. What do you think?"

Treating people with respect is hard for some people. Let me be clear. Whether or not someone has earned your respect is separate from how you behave toward them. I'm saying that your behavior—which includes your words and facial expressions—should always be respectful.

The Golden Rule and the Platinum Rule are good guidelines for communication, although they're open to interpretation. For instance, I have a good friend who says, "Just tell me, give it to me straight, and I won't take it personally." Most people are not like that, so when he treats people the way he'd like to be treated (following the Golden Rule), they feel offended and insulted. By the same token, he doesn't really understand how others like to be treated (the Platinum Rule), and to a certain extent he doesn't care, so he still treats them the way he'd like to be treated, because he assumes that they're like him.

That's not effective communication. It doesn't include treating others with respect, even though my friend would say that it's more respectful to be direct and honest than not.

The last part of the equation—creating value—is also challenging. Do the following statements sound familiar?

"I told him how to do it right, and he's not doing it. So I told him that he's an idiot."

"I told him he's wrong, and now it's up to him to figure it out."

Do these types of exchanges create value? Of course not. They make the other person feel terrible and they don't improve productivity or morale.

Creating value means that at the end of each exchange, there must be more there between you, rather than less. There should be more understanding. There should be more learning. There should be more camaraderie.

Here's the thing—every one of us must learn effective communication. If you don't want to learn how, then find a job that lets you work by yourself, and then deliver a perfect product every time so you don't have to discuss it with anyone. If you're not capable of delivering a perfect product, then you're going to have to talk to someone. Why not talk to them in a way that doesn't upset them?

If you've read my blog, you know that I believe that there are two basic communication patterns: IAAM– and IAAM+. They're the two variations on the pattern "It's All About Me."

In short, consider this thesis: Everything you say and do is about you—revealing your feelings, your motivations, your reactions. They're not about someone else. I believe that the statements:"He made me angry" and "She hurt my feelings" are false. No one is responsible for your feelings and behavior but you. But by the same token, while you are not responsible for anyone else's feelings or behavior, you still have a responsibility to be aware of other people and what leads them to feel certain ways.

That's at the core of effective communication: taking responsibility for your feelings and behavior.

Here are a few things I like to think about when reflecting on my interactions with others:

  • If I was there, I contributed, even if I sat silently by.
  • If someone feels something, while I'm not responsible, I may have contributed to the circumstances that led to them feeling that way.
  • Have I checked my own behavior and words?
  • What's most important: being right or contributing to the relationship?

Whether in meetings or in individual conversation, these are among the things I consider every time. If we all do the same, our interactions will yield better results, productivity will improve, and our team cohesion will be enhanced.

Steven M. List (known as "Doc") is a career technologist, leader, coach, and facilitator and currently works for ThoughtWorks as an organizational transformation consultant. He is a recognized professional Open Space facilitator, including having been embraced by Microsoft and the ALT.Net community.