Category Archives: People Skills

People skills for software developers / software engineers and, in fact, technical workers in all industries

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.”

How do you test your assumptions about what they’re thinking? By engaging in dialogue,  with intent of sharing valid information (ie giving and receiving information) and by using your dialogue skills.  The chapter of Crucial Conversations entitled “STATE Your Path”,  is particularly useful regarding the skills.

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

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.



Review applicable skills

This is is the third and, for now, the last in a series of tips on how to prepare for discussions which you know will be difficult.

Tip 3: Review applicable skills

I remember being faced with a particularly difficult meeting some time ago.  Feeling unsure about how to approach it, I broke out a “cheat sheet”.  It was a brief summary of Crucial Conversations. There’s so much in that book, sometimes its hard to remember all the ideas that may be relevant to a given situation.  In this particular case,  the most relevant section was on “how to make it safe to talk about almost anything”. Using that, and thinking about what I really wanted, helped me to realise that what I had to say wasn’t actually terribly confrontational after all – or at least, it wouldn’t be if I presented it carefully and honestly.

The helpful summary I used is here.  However, no summary can take the place of the actual book.  For instance one of the best skills in the book, “Contrasting”, doesn’t even appear in the summary.  So support the authors and buy the real book, then use the summary as a refresher.

I notice that the right approach seems to be different from one situation to the next – particularly when dealing with situations that I’m not very experienced in.  So it helps to think beforehand about the best way to approach it.  Having decided on the skills that best suit the situation,  I sometimes then make hand-written notes to remind me of the key points.  For instance: key ingredients to the “contrasting” approach; a key story to illustrate the basis for my concern; or a reminder to myself to ask enough questions to find out where others feel comfortable, and uncomfortable, with my proposal.  I don’t necessarily read the notes during the discussion, or even have them with me, but the act of making them helps to clarify things in my mind.

Bonus Tip 4: Adapt

Just because you’ve got things straight in your head before the discussion, doesn’t necessarily mean it will go in the direction you expect.  If the discussion takes a different path, be prepared to go with it.  You don’t have to drag it back to what you prepared for!  The next few posts will be about dealing with the unexpected.

What you want. What you really, really want.

Last time, we talked about a tip for situations when you have a difficult meeting coming up.  Here’s another tip I’ve found useful.

Tip 2: Figure out what you really want

Sometimes we find ourselves with counter-productive thoughts in the lead-up to a discussion: “I just want him to admit that he’s wrong”, “These people don’t know what they’re talking about!”

It’s helpful to think what you really want, in grand scheme of things.  Do you really want so-and-so to publically grovel at your feet?  That’s how it might feel in the heat of the moment, but if you thought about your long-term goals it would probably be more like, “I want the team to move forward with solutions that will be good for the business”.  There’s nothing in there about scoring points. Instead there’s a much more worthy and noble cause.

Thinking about these more worthy long-term goals can often help us to focus on what we really want, not what our tempers or emotions happen to be distracting us with today.  Having focussed on what we really want, we’re more likely to conduct ourselves in ways consistent with achieving it.

I don’t have much more to say about this, because the book Crucial Conversations says it so much better than I can.  The chapter is called “Start with Heart: How to stay focussed on what you really want”.  Like so much of that book, the advice is extremely useful at home as well as at work.

Prepare your stories

In my last post in this Dialogue Skills series, I talked about learning and that fact that real learning requires practice. So how can you practice dialogue skills?

Perhaps the easiest situation is when you are expecting a meeting or conversation to be somewhat difficult. You know the other people there are likely to hold different views, and you may even know roughly what those views will be. Situations like that used to make me nervous! But now, I’m able to look at them as a golden opportunity to practice my dialogue skills.  :-)

Seeing these discussions as convenient practice opportunities makes me less nervous and better prepared. So in the next few post I’ll outline some tips, based on what’s worked for me over the last few years. Each tip involves some mental preparation before the meeting, so that when the meeting comes you’ll be ready. In the meeting, if it goes roughly as you expected, the time will come when you can put your preparation into action. It might work very well; it might work less well. The key point is to find opportunities to keep practicing, over weeks and months, so that gradually you’ll meet with increasing success.

In the short term meanwhile, you may find these discussions almost immediately become less stressful, once you see them as welcome opportunities for practice instead of dreaded confrontations!

 Tip 1: Prepare your stories

As I outlined in my People Skills talk, telling a true story is one of the most powerful persuasion techniques and also one of the easiest to use – even when trying to persuade people who out rank you. So before the meeting or discussion, ask yourself why do you hold your different view? Have you seen things done very successfully “your way” in the past? If so, there’s your story! Tell the true story of that success. Have you seen things fail, when done in the way described by your colleagues? If so, there’s your story! Tell the true story of the problems you’ve seen.

Whether your story is one of past success or past failure, before the meeting you should give some thought to how you’ll tell it. Can you make it reasonably brief? That’s probably good. I suspect that brief and clear story will invite more interest than a longer and more boring telling of the same material. How will you begin the story? I find it helpful to have the first sentence or so clear in my head before the meeting.

For instance, say I’m involved in planning a difficult and novel change to a system. Everyone else thinks is reasonably easy, but I don’t agree. I want us to allow more time in our project schedule for dealing with the unexpected. So I might say something like this:

When I worked at [CompanyX] we had to change our product to make it available 24/7 and guarantee virtually no downtime. We thought, ‘yeah, that’s not too hard, we’ll have instant failover to a hot standby ’. But actually making it work turned out to be way harder than we expected. The work dragged on and was finished about a year late. What we’re talking about today seems like another one of those things – something that doesn’t seem too hard, but which may come back and bite us because we’ve never done it before. Can we get ourselves a better safety margin by adding some time to the schedule?”

Before the meeting, I’d get that story straight in my head. Particularly the first sentence – so that I can get the story started without waffling. Sometimes I have the whole story prepared in my head, and sometimes I just have the first sentence. In either case, what I actually say in the meeting is always different from what I’d prepared, since I hate the idea of speaking from a prepared script. Nevertheless, the preparation really helps, because I know which story I want to tell, and I know roughly how I want to tell it.

I’ve found that being prepared with relevant stories boosts my confidence and effectiveness in discussions. I hope you find the same.