People Skills, distilled

Here’s a 6-point summary of my “People Skills” talk.  The points are in pairs, two about negotiation, two about the “arrows of communication”, and two about mindset.

Identify interests
Generate options

Share your stories
Ask for their experiences

Don’t try to win the meeting
Test your assumptions

Note that there’s far more to people skills than these 6 points. The book Crucial Conversations has many more learnable skills. (About 25 in total).  The 6 I’ve listed here are the ones that seem particularly important to me, and which flow together (somewhat) in the structure of the talk I give about People Skills.


Identifying Interests

A key part of good negotiation, or negotiation-like discussions such as those about design of a new product, is identifying the interests of all parties.

I suspect that there’s a very common mistake made, when identifying interests. That is to assume what the other person’s interests are, instead of asking them.

But it gets worse. In my opinion, assumptions are particularly dangerous when they are assumptions about the other person’s motivations or attitudes.  E.g. “He wants all the glory for coming up with the idea”.  There’s several things wrong with assumptions of this type:

  • Firstly, they distract attention from the real interests that we should be focussing the discussion on: what business benefits does the other person want to obtain?
  • Secondly, they encourage us to fall back into a Unilateral Control mindset.  I find it better if I simply don’t make any assumptions of this type.  Instead of making assumptions about the other person’s motives, I focus on the actual business problem at hand, and seek to learn more about their practical interests in relation to the business problem.

As you talk (and listen) openly about the actual business problem, you’re likely to find that the other person’s motives are not too bad.  No-one comes to work to deliberately do a poor job. On some level, virtually everyone wants a good outcome for the business they work for.  Making negative assumptions about their motives is usually mistaken and almost always a distraction and waste of your time.

Mindsets, distilled

It’s not easy to summarise the wonderful work of Chris Argyris. His work on mindsets, namely the Unilateral Control mindset and the Mutual Learning mindset, seems particularly difficult to summarise – and yet it’s so vitally important to anyone who works with other people.

Here’s my latest attempt, at approachable wording for the two mindsets.

Unilateral Control:  (common, and counter-productive)

“Guess what they’re thinking.
Don’t trigger negative emotions.
Get them to do what you want”.

Mutual Learning: (works better)

” Test assumptions (about what they’re thinking)
Share valid information.
Seek well-informed agreement.”

(In this context, “unilateral” simply means “one sided” and “mutual” means “we’re all in this together”. )

The dynamics of trends

I think this lovely quote, originally about scientific research, probably explains a lot about how trends come and go in software engineering.

after a new paradigm is proposed, the [publication]process is tilted toward positive results. But then, after a few years, the academic incentives shift—the paradigm has become entrenched—so that the most notable results are now those that disprove the theory.

From . The article quotes a study by John Ioannidis, who writes:

It can be proven that most claimed research findings are false…

…for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.

From (Emphasis added)

An Experiment in Think-First Development

I conducted an experiment today. I chose a problem which Ron Jeffries solved with TDD. I took the opposite approach.  I sat for about 5 minutes and thought about the solution.  Then I wrote down the code, added a unit test, ran the test to find the errors (there were 3), added one more test, re-ran both tests, and I was done.

What did I learn?

  1. I’m reasonably happy with my “think first” solution.
  2. I like it because it represents the solution in a very direct way.  It’s something my mind can relate to.  The design embodies a “Unit Metaphor”.  I just made that term up ;)  I mean a small-scale version of XP’s System Metaphor – a way of thinking about this unit of code that makes sense to me, as a human.
  3. I don’t think I would have come up with such a direct solution if I’d worked test-first.  I believe I would have been led to the solution in a much more round-about way,  and vestiges of the journey would have remained in the final code.
  4. During TDD the code “speaks” to you.  But I question whether it speaks with a sufficiently creative voice.  Can it really “tell” you a good Unit Metaphor?  Or does it merely tell you about improved variations of itself?  If the Unit Metaphor is missing at the start, will it remain missing for ever? (And it probably will be missing at the start, because as a good TDD practitioner you deliberately didn’t think about it at the start, right? ;)
  5. As an aside, maybe this example problem is too small.  Ron got a 6000-word blog-post out of it, but its it really a big enough problem to serve as a test-bed of design and coding techniques?  Maybe our online discussion about TDD is skewed by the inevitable necessity to use relatively small examples.  I don’t know….

What I do know (or at least strongly believe ;-) is that a certain degree of directness helps humans understand code, and a little up-front thought may help to create that directness. The trick, I suggest, is to seek a simple Unit Metaphor during your up-front thinking.

The Design Problem

The problem posed was to write code to create textual output in a “diamond” pattern, like this:

- - A - -
- B - B -
C - - - C
- B - B -
- - A - -

(spaces added here, just for readability).

Obviously it should be parameterized, to produce diamonds of various sizes.  The next size up has a “D” line in the middle, surrounded by two “C” lines.

This coding problem was previously mentioned by Seb Rose and Alistair Cockburn.

Comparing the Solutions 

(If you want to try writing your own solution, best to do that now, before following the links to Ron’s solution and mine).

Ron’s solution is in Ruby.  You can find it at the bottom of this page.

My solution is in C#, since that’s the language I know best.  You can find it, and the two unit tests, in this text file.

Comparing the two, Ron’s looks more visually appealing  at first glance. The methods are shorter, like methods are “supposed” to be, and it’s doing some clever stuff with generating only one quarter of the output and using symmetry to produce the rest.

Mine looks uglier.  The implementation is one 24-line method. (I think I’ve violated a few published coding standards right there!). But it does its work in a very straightforward way. It builds up the diamond one complete  line at a time.  It directly models the current width of the diamond, by keeping track of the edge’s “current distance from the centre”.

My, totally biased(!), view is that the direct, single-method implementation is actually easier for humans to make sense of and reason about.

BTW George Dinwiddie posted another solution here.

An Aside About Timing

It’s worth noting that my initial 5 minutes of thinking produced the general shape of the solution, but not all the details.  The actual coding, including the two tests, took about 18 minutes – an embarrassing proportion of which was consumed by the three bugs and with details of C# that I really should have known (e.g. I felt sure there was a built-in “IsOdd” method somewhere for integers.  But apparently there’s not.)

I think I would have taken longer to produce a solution with a pure TDD approach.  Of course, I can’t prove that because, as Ron points out in his post, its impossible for one person to realistically test two different approaches to the same problem – since any second attempt is polluted by knowledge gained in the first.


For the record, I also enjoy test-first. Particularly on really complex problems, or on simple ones when I’m suffering from writer’s block.

What I object to, and feel uncomfortable with, is the common implication that there’s only one true way to build software. People differ. Projects differ. Elements within projects differ. We should embrace those differences, and draw on our full range of tools – including up-front thought.

Stories and Social Capital

The telling of true stories crops up again and again as a useful interaction technique. It’s easier to raise a dissenting view if you do so my telling a true story; and it easier for others to listen to you. Compare “Your idea won’t work”, with, “At my old job, we tried something similar and found that it was really hard to write queries against the data because…”

Some years ago I enjoyed reading the book In Good Company.  It highlighted the power of stories.  Now, years later, I can still remember key examples that were mentioned in the book. (Which illustrates another benefit of stories – they are memorable.)

From the back of the book:

“In Good Company is the first book to examine the role that social capital — a company’s “stock” of human connections such as trust, personal networks, and a sense of community — plays in thriving organizations.”

Sharing stories are a key tool in building social capital.  But there’s also much more to building social capital; much more that can and should be done to build up trust, personal networks and a sense of community.  The authors admit that many of their suggestions can seem like common sense.  But like many common sense ideas, they are not so commonly followed!  I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last few years in a team with excellent social capital… and it’s been a huge boost to our success and happiness. This stuff really matters!

Tame the spaghetti meeting

At the start of my last project, we found ourselves not with the infamous “spaghetti code” but with it’s interpersonal equivalent: spaghetti meetings.  While the group was discussing a topic someone would inevitably say, “Oh, that reminds me of…” and launch into a description of some related, but different, topic that.  This was disruptive and cut off those that were still waiting to speak on the initial topic.

Eventually I encouraged the team to use a technique which I’ve been using myself for some years.  When a related topic pops into my head in a meeting, I usually

  1. Note it down on a piece of paper
  2. Let the discussion on the current topic run its course. This allows everyone who wanted to speak about the current topic to get their chance, and the group to benefit from their thinking.  It also feels more inclusive. Once we’ve finished with the current topic…
  3. …then I introduce my new topic.

This simple technique seems to make a big difference.  Of course, it requires people to bring pen and paper to meetings and informal discussions.  With paper for notes there’s no need to blurt out something “just before I forget”.

You might notice that this is similar to the “parking lot” some meeting facilitators put up on a whiteboard.  Personally, I believe the pen and paper technique is even better.  With each person silently running their own personal parking lot on paper, there’s no interruption to the group at all.

Assume less; discuss more

There’s a very apt saying in IT that, “Assumption is the mother of all ****ups!” (Replace **** with “stuff” or a stronger 4-letter word of your choice!)

The same holds true for our conversations.  Often, we leave massive pieces of the conversation out entirely, because we’ve made assumptions about the other persons.  Assumptions about what they are thinking; assumptions about their motivations, assumptions about what would and would not upset them; and so on. And then we wonder why our conversations don’t work!

Heather Grace posts an excellent example in the IITP Techblog here. I encourage you to read it.

Her concise and relatable example illustrates points made at greater length in the work of Chris Argyris and in the book Crucial Conversations – both of which have heavily influenced my own thinking and actions  when it comes to People Skills.

Operating System of the Mind

When writing and speaking about People Skills, I’ve often felt that there was something missing.  Something important, which somehow I wasn’t successfully explaining.

Recently I discovered a great video from Dr Roger Schwartz, and it fills in the gap.  He points out that learning new skills is not enough. Most attempts to learn new skills fall flat.  Why? Because we apply the new skills within our old mindset (i.e. way of thinking).

Check out the video. Dr Schwartz covers the issue of mindset for People Skills really well. I’d suggest you skip the first 8 minutes, which consist of other people introducing Dr Schwartz. And if, like me, you want to get through the meat of the talk more quickly, use YouTube’s Play Speed setting to set it to play at 1.5x speed. (Click on the Settings – gear-like – icon at the bottom right of the video and choose a Speed option. Note that this doesn’t work in Internet Explorer.)

Here’s the video. I highly recommend it.



Your questions

If you were about to attend a workshop on People Skills, what would you be hoping to learn?  What questions would you bring with you?

I ask because I’m teaching my first People Skills workshops in a few weeks and am currently fine-tuning the content.  Any tips or suggestions you can offer will be most welcome. Thanks :-)