Keep Calm and Open Up Your Mind

Books for better communication - 1

If there is one thing will for sure happen to any software engineer, that is conflicting ideas from others which we will have to deal with. In code reviews, in designs, in processes, in UX, in product strategies… How we handle conflicts in these conversations directly impacts our productivity and how people perceive us. In worst cases, we could get tangled in the conflicts and fail to move forward, or we could “burn our bridges” and cause career setback.

As much as I want to assume good intention from conflicting ideas, it’s obviously not always the case. There are plenty reasons for people to have hidden agenda to disagree with you so things could be to their advantage.

I’m sharing a common pattern I have learned to deal with conflicting ideas. In the end, I will list the books I find especially helpful.

Step 1: Be aware

The natural response to conflicting ideas is “fight or flight”, neither is constructive. If we “flight”, we end up avoiding the conflict but the problem causing the conflict won’t go away and will likely pop back up again. If we “fight” without attention, we will either suppress the different voices or have others turn into defense mode.

To stop this natural but non-constructive response, we have to raise our awareness of when “fight or flight” is triggered. The signal is our anxiety. As stated in the book “Why Are We Yelling”:

Anxiety sparks when a perspective we value bumps into another perspective that challenges it in some way.

Anxiety is pure emotional and we often don’t know why it comes to us. The solution is to detach from that emotion and deliberately ask ourselves what the anxiety is about.

In book “Crucial Conversations”, it suggests to ask:

Is the anxiety from a story I’m telling myself or what others actually meant?

In book “Why Are We Yelling”, it suggests to ask:

Is the anxiety about what is true, what is meaningful or what is useful?

Such questions help us to keep calm and prepare us for the next step.

Step 2: Keep an open mind

This step is about collecting more information with which we can decide how to move forward. The key here is to ask open-ended questions and invite others to reveal more of their thoughts. Good open-ended questions usually start with “what” and “how”.

To start, we can ask “What are we trying to accomplish?” It is critical to identity what’s the mutual purpose (concept in “Crucial Conversations”) in the conversation. If you’re concerned about what is practical and others are arguing about what is meaningful, it’s less likely for you to make meaningful progress.

We will need to iterate several rounds of open-ended questions from different angles, and more effectively with paraphrase to make sure (others perceive us) we really understand their points. This process also helps us to identify potential hidden agenda others have. E.g. a question like “How does this affect the rest of your team?” might reveal there are other stakeholders. If they choose to not answer such a question directly, it’s also a signal that there might be a hidden agenda. The books linked below all give really good examples of such open-ended questions.

Asking open-ended questions (tones also matters!) shows that you respect others (whether it’s genuine is not up to me to judge) and forms an open atmosphere so they tend to be less defensive and are willing to continue the conversation in a more meaningful way. The byproduct (as pointed out in “Never Split the Difference”) from open-ended questions is that the answers are not forced onto others (like in “convince others with my reasons”). And people tend to be consistent with what they have said.

Step 3: Move forward

Hopefully at this point you have collected enough information to reveal others’ real concern (or part of the hidden agenda). To move forward, the goal is to create a consensus. Probably in most cases the conflict is not a zero sum game. You and others both learned something new and are able to agree on a plan. When it’s indeed a zero sum game and you have absolutely no way to circle around your counterpart, I hope the information in step2 would at least give you some idea of what leverages you have.

Book links:

  • Crucial Conversations - A classic you’ve probably already read. It maintains an excellent balance between summaries and examples.

  • Why Are We Yelling - Love its phrase of Head, Hand, Heart realms of conflicts. Many practical examples. Some unnecessary drawings and explanations are distracting.

  • Never Split the Difference - A book reveals that negotiation is just handling conflicting needs from different parties. The key is to find new information.