Telling it like it is

Migrated from Posterous.

Even though a blunt truth might be the quickest way to present an idea, it is not the best way to cause change.

This evening I read an essay called Tact Filters (via J.B. Rainsberger) that divides people, in a slightly simplified view of the world, into nerds and normal people. The difference being that while “normal” people tend to filter outgoing communication for potentially upsetting messages, but not the incoming one, nerds do it the opposite way — they censor incoming communication, but not outgoing. This would explain why us nerds are very blunt when stating ideas, but tend not to care much when being criticized, while the rest of the world would easily get offended by criticism, but at the same time refrain from inflicting it on someone else.

While I do agree that to an extent the dichotomy has some substance, since most developers I know are more direct and egotistical than people in other industries, I recently came to the conclusion that “telling it like it is” is detrimental to having a constructive discussion.

At my current employer, we changed team structure recently, so a lot of adjustments have to be made until we will gel together as a team. As Scrum Master, I consider one of my main responsibilities to be getting the team to respect the Scrum and XP rules during our first sprints, so that we would share a common process to improve later, as a result of our analysis.

I am constantly trying to determine if we are not respecting best practices (pair programming, refactoring, unit testing, frequent commits, limiting work in progress, developing the most important stories first etc.) and remind people that they should change in order to “get back on track”.

Needless to say, my constantly being a pain in the rear has led to numerous arguments while I was trying to make a point. Returning to the tact filters, analyzing my behavior in light of its terms (input vs. output filter), I realized that change was easier for everyone to accept if proposed in a tactful manner, that is when my output filter was on.

Of course, information is more easily provided without trying to camouflage it in a non-controversial format, but I found that a lot of minds shut down when you start a conversation with “You are doing X wrong, because it leads to Y”. Our minds simply freeze and we enter a defensive mode that prevents us from discussing the idea, but instead we try to justify our ways. The least resistance comes when discussions start in a conversational format, such as “How do you think Y will be affected by doing X?”, which lead to idea swapping.

Especially in our industry, where a lot of practices are based on small-scale observation or educated guessing, trying to nudge the team in a certain direction requires a lot of diplomacy and attention so that dialogues do not end up as monologues, and eventually as a complete waste of time.

To be effective communicators, we should “switch on” both our input and output filters.


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