Category Archives: People Skills

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

Key points in the video

The video I just posted doesn’t show all the slides. In practice, there isn’t a Powerpoint deck that I can post, because many of the slides are hand-drawn by me during the talk. So, instead of slides, here’s a summary of the key points.

Improving our people skills can

  • Make our projects more successful
  • Encourage gender equality in IT
  • Make us more satisfied in work (who hasn’t felt stressed due to inter-personal difficulties!)

Anyone can learn people skills

  • If a nerd like me can do it, I reckon anyone can!

(Good) Negotiation consists of

  • Separate people from the problem
  • Focus on interests not positions
  • Generate options for mutual gain
  • Use objective criteria

(From the book Getting To Yes)
The two in the middle, about interests and options, crop up again and again in IT.

Getting your idea said

There’s great stuff in the book Crucial Conversations.  Just a few of the techniques that I’ve found useful are:

  • Offer new options (as per Negotiation, above)
  • Tell your true stories
  • Present your concerns, explicitly as concerns.

Helping others get their ideas said

  • Ladder of inference (from Chris Argyris, via the book Discussing the Undiscussable)
  • Ask for their concerns, in a way where the implied right answer is to offer information

(Again, there are many other techniques from sources such as the books mentioned above.  The talk covered only a sample).

You’re not obliged to “win” meetings

To be persuasive

  • Inquire to understand their Interests
  • Inquire to understand their reservations about your proposal (“Debug your pitch”)
  • Be open to the possibility that you might be persuaded (genuinely believing this takes stress off you, and is fun once you get used to it).

Effort to learn

  • It takes about as much effort to learn this stuff as it does to play tennis.
  • Gradual practice works
  • You can get value out of your learning early on (months, years even, before you’ve “finished” learning)

This material is

  • Powerful (“project-saving” kind of powerful)
  • Different (much, much different from the average book or course on people skills – most of which are very poor)
  • Learnable
  • Useful at home too


  • … if employees came to your company because it had a great interpersonal culture.

Follow-up blog posts

  • Here are the follow-up posts which I promised at the end of the video. I’m still posting new ones approximately weekly (resuming Feb 2014)

Summary “slide”

Showing the “arrows of communication” in both directions.


The Video

Over the past few years, I’ve been building up material on how we can all learn people skills.  Late last year I finally got it all pulled together into a 30-minute presentation.  The presentation includes several important things which I have not yet covered in writing on this blog.

I presented the talk at last year’s NZ Institute of IT Professionals (IITP) conference in Tauranga to a small but (I think) appreciative audience. Thanks to the generosity of the good folks at IITP, the presentation is now available on-line for a limited time. (Conference presentations are  normally for IITP members-only, but they’ve kindly made this one openly available “for a limited time”).

Here’s the video

(and please forgive the nervous-looking lackluster first 60 seconds or so, it gets better!) Finally, here’s a textual summary of the talk, in lieu of a slide deck.

What is learning?

This series of posts is about how to learn people skills, and dialogue skills in particular.  So what does it mean to learn something?

I fear our education system gives us the wrong idea of what learning is about.  It’s easy to finish one’s days as a student, and leave with the impression that learning is about knowledge acquitistion. But it’s not really.  Does a baby learn to walk by acquiring knowledge?  No, they learn by practicing.  Does a teenager learn to drive by acquiring knowledge?  Not really.  Although knowing the rules of the road is important, the key ingredient in learning to drive is practice.

If you can recall learning to drive, do you remember how difficult it first seemed?  How there seemed to be too much going on around you?  How, even with all the concentration you could muster, it seemed almost impossible to do the right thing at the right time?

But what about now? On an empty road, do you find yourself driving on “automatic pilot” – thinking mostly about something else?  An activity which once seemed almost impossible has now become so easy that, in simple cases, you scarcely need to think about it.  What made the difference?  Practice.

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman wrote an absolutely wonderful book that explains what is happening when we practice.  How the powerful “automatic” part of our brain slowly acquires the skill in question, freeing up the “effortful” part of our brain to direct its attention elsewhere.   This transition, from effortful thought to automatic and unconscious pattern recoginiction, is essential to true skill or expertise.

So how do we “train” this powerful automatic part of our brain?  By exposing it to lots of relevant experiences. For a baby first learning to stand up, those experiences consist largely of not standing – i.e. falling – in almost every possible way.  Slowly, and largely unconsciously, the brain learns the difference between “standing” and all the different kinds of “not standing”.  James Bach described the same thing for learning to fly an aeroplane.  Failure – within the limits of avoiding serious damage to plane or occupants – was a key part of the process. The impression I took away from his talk, and which has since been reinforced by reading Kahneman’s book, is that success only becomes ingrained in us if we also experience the various kinds of failure that lie at its fringes.

Learning dialogue skills will be no different.  Yes, learning some knowledge is important. And there is plenty of knowledge to learn.  But the real difference comes from practice.

For me, it seems to have worked like this:

  1. Learn a few pieces of knowledge that are relevant to my current needs. For instance, when I read Crucial Conversations several things stuck in my mind because they seemed relevant to situations I was in at the time.  Many other great things in the book didn’t “stick” on first reading, but that’s fine because there’s too much to digest all at once anyway.
  2. Consciously practice applying those things that I’ve learned.  Generally, each bit of practice has been only a small step, just enough to slightly stretch the boundaries of my comfort zone.  My hunch is that it’s best not to seek perfection (how would you recognise it anyway, in an area you haven’t yet mastered?) but instead to delight in finding opportunities to practice.
  3. Once some of the practiced skills start to become second nature (“automatic”), that frees up headspace. So, even though I may be continuing to consciously practice some things, I can let the others run on “autopilot” and look around for something new to learn.  (E.g. re-read Crucial Conversations and get something new out of it).

This series of posts will contain a mixture – both pointers to useful knowledge and tips on how to practice. In the next two posts I’ll talk about practicing when you are expecting the conversation to be difficult (this can be good, because you can prepare for it) and also about creating useful practice from those situations that catch you by surprise.


I suspect the misconception, that learning is primarily about knowledge acquisition, is fairly widespread.  I presume it comes from the education system’s emphasis on recalling knowledge in formal tests.  It’s ironic that our biggest misconception about learning comes from the education system!  Yet it needn’t be that way.  Educators do know the value of practice – that’s why they made you work out the answers to so many maths problems!  They were getting you to practice! Perhaps it would help if the value of practice was simply talked about more.  If we could talk about it more than we talk about testing students, that would be even better!

Don’t be fooled by Myers-Briggs

The Myers-Briggs personality test classifies you as Introvert or Extrovert, Thinker or Feeler, and so on. It gives you a  four-letter type like “INTJ”. The catch is, Myers-Briggs is  just bad, bad, bad.  If you’ve ever felt that Myers-Briggs seemed promising, but failed to deliver long-term benefits, here’s why.

Reason 1: Labeling ourselves is harmful

Myers-Briggs gives you a label.  In practice, being given a label makes a person think they’ll be like that for ever.  That’s simply not the case.  All the sources I quote on my site leave no doubt that the ability to deal effectively with others is a learned skill.  My own experience demonstrates the same.  I’ve started from zero and learned how to interact successfully with workmates.

The problem with being given a label is that if you think you can’t change, then you won’t pay much attention to the ways you can change. You’ll just carry right on thinking that you can’t. Busting that myth is a key goal of my site and talks!

I’m sure some fans of Myers-Briggs would point out that you’re not supposed to see your Myers-Briggs type as permanent. They can change over time. (In fact, as we’ll see below, they change rather too often.)  The problem is, most people who take the test see the result as permanent even if advised otherwise.  As soon as people start saying “I am an INTJ”, they are assuming their current limitations will be permanent.  Science says otherwise:

Humans are open systems…

People retain the capacity to change at all ages.

(From the academic paper “Personality Change in Adulthood“, by Roberts and Mroczek)

Reason 2: Labeling others is harmful too

We’re taught as children that we shouldn’t stereotype other people.  Then we put on a suit, go to work, and some Myer-Briggs consultant tells us to start stereotyping again!  “Your colleague over there, she’s an ESTJ.  That guy, he’s an INFP.”

There are many reasons why we’re taught  to not stereotype.  One is that humans are prone to the “Fundamental Attribution Error”. That’s when we attribute our own behaviour to the unique circumstances of the moment at hand, but we attribute the behaviour of others to their traits or characteristics.  We might say, “I’m grumpy today because my kids are sick and I was awake half the night; but Bob’s grumpy because he’s a mean bastard.”  Surely we owe others the same decency we offer to ourselves, which is to recognise the existence of a real and complex human, operating in a real and complex world.  There’s a reason why its called the Fundamental Attribution Error.

Giving your colleagues Myers-Briggs labels encourages you to see their behaviour as stemming from their “fixed” traits, rather than from their circumstances of the moment.  It’s just the Fundamental Attribution Error dressed up in a fake moustache and glasses.

Reason 3: It’s not actionable

Say you know your own Myers-Briggs type, and that of your colleagues. What are you supposed to do about it?  How is that information supposed to help you deal with them more effectively?

Are you supposed to carry around in your head the whole matrix of 16 Myers-Briggs types, and for each one the knowledge of how you, given your type, should interact with it?  Even if you could do that successfully, wouldn’t your colleagues feel you were trying to manipulate them by tailoring your message to what they want to hear?

Wouldn’t it be much easier to learn one set of communication techniques which apply to all persons, of all personality “types”?  These universal techniques are the ones I advocate on my blog.  They are techniques which you use “in the moment”, responding to what this person is saying and doing, at this moment in time.  In doing so you respect the uniqueness of the other person and the uniqueness of their current circumstances.  Your communication works better, and besides, its easier than trying to carry around a mental matrix of 16 different ways to interact with 16 different “types”!

It’s worth noting that, of all the well-researched modern books I’ve read on dialogue skills, I don’t recall a single one ever saying anything about personality types.  They teach useful skills instead.

Reason 4: It distracts attention from the good stuff

There is so much good material on learnable practical skills.  It’s a crying shame that so much training on workplace interaction begins and ends with personality testing.

I saw first-hand evidence of this when I first started asking friends and colleagues about “people skills for geeks”.  Virtually everyone replied by telling me about a personality test they had been given, as if that was the first and last word on the matter.  I don’t recall any one of these people, most of whom had attended “professionally”-delivered courses, ever mentioning a single one of the learnable skills which I’ve since discovered from other sources.  It is those skills which will be the focus of this website in coming months, but for now, please allow me to put the boot into Myers-Briggs with one last vigorous kick….

Reason 5: It’s scientifically incorrect!

From a scientific point of view, Myers-Briggs just doesn’t add up.  To give just three examples:

  • Your type, as assessed by the Myers-Briggs test, can change significantly over short periods of time (e.g. 6 months).  If the results are that variable what, if anything, is it actually measuring?  And what value does the measurement have, if it can change so quickly?
  • It promotes false dichotomies.  Myers-Briggs says you are either an Introvert or an Extrovert.  The facts, as measured by actual science, show this aspect of personality is more like a bell-curve with most people somewhere in the middle.  “Ambivert” is the correct term.
  • Myers-Briggs would suggest that you are either good with ideas and data or good with people.  Science says those skills actually go hand-in hand.  The same part of the brain is used for planning (understanding work) and empathy (understanding people).  How many people, myself included, have mistakenly assumed these skills are mutually exclusive?

Professor Adam Grant wrote an excellent article about these, and other, problems with Myers-Briggs.  I heartily recommend it.    I also found a  portion of The Wisdom Paradox, by Elkhonon Goldberg, excellent on the point that the same part of the brain handles planning and empathy, and therefore those skills are correlated rather than mutually exclusive.


We have to stop putting ourselves in little 4-letter boxes.  It’s time to get on with learning skills instead of accepting restrictive — and scientifically bogus — labels.

I stand by the content of this post, and I would argue that science stands with me ;-)   But I do apologise for any offence my wording may have caused.  If you happen to be someone who offers Myers-Briggs assessments, please allow me to respectfully make two comments.

  • Firstly, if you’re in the business of helping people work together, it would be great if personality testing  made up only a minor part of your professional practice.  Something like 5% for example.  Why? Because there is just so much other good stuff to teach!  Your students will get more value from skills than labels.
  • Secondly, perhaps personality testing is OK for the purpose of teaching students the lesson that, “Not everyone sees the world you like do”.  But instead of Myers-Briggs, why not use a modern test with proven scientific validity?

Finally, if you happen to be a manager who purchases MBTI assessments for your staff… please stop.

More on the ladder of inference

In my recent conference talk I mentioned the “ladder of inference” as a thinking tool, and described how it can help us understand the views of those who disagree with us.  The end result may be that, having understood the basis for their views better, we find those views more persuasive that they first appeared.  Another possible outcome is that both parties find those views less persuasive, once their underlying facts are highlighted.  Or perhaps, together, both parties might come up with an even better idea.

Benjamin Mitchell points out an important thing which I omitted from my talk: the ladder of inference applies equally to us understanding our own thoughts.  I recommend you take a look at his post on the subject, here.

Be Real

Ten years ago I had a false start in learning dialogue skills.  It was one of several false starts, in fact! In this particular instance, I read a book on technical leadership.  Unlike the books I now recommend, this older book was based more on opinion than research. It seemed to be telling me that, if I wanted to lead technical teams, I needed to become a very different kind of person.  I was offended by the suggestion that I needed to radically change.  What was wrong with me as I was!  As besides, any kind of “personality transplant” seemed most unlikely to succeed.  So for years I abandoned all hope of becoming a technical leader.

Finally, I discovered the truth. There is no ideal personality for leadership. Instead, successful leaders are true to themselves.  They are real.

In their well-researched book, “Why Should Anyone Be Led By You“, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones show that successful leadership is based on a simple principle:

Be yourself — more — with skill.

You remain always as the real authentic “you”, while learning skills to interact more successfully with others.  Don’t apply those skills according to a formula; apply them in ways that work for you.

Like many books on workplace interaction, Goffee and Jones focus on people in defined leadership roles.  I think that’s a shame, because I have no doubt that their findings apply to every team member who wants to communicate.  That’s certainly been the case for me. Since I started focussing on learning skills, while still being myself, I’ve had far more success dealing with people.  And more fun too.

Skilled Dialogue

Last week I spoke at a conference on People Skills for IT Professionals.   Like some of my older talks on the topic, this one included a semi-autobiographical account of how workplace people skills are learnable. But unlike my talks of a few years ago, this one also included some fairly solid details on what those skills actually are.

The material in the talk drew heavily from Getting To Yes and Crucial Conversations, and also from the work of Chris Argyris.

But skilled workplace dialogue is not something that can be learned, or taught, in one half-hour presentation.  Just like you can’t learn to cook, drive or play tennis from one 30-minute talk!  So, I’m going to post a follow-up series of posts here on my blog.  There’ll be one post each week, for at least 6 months.  If you subscribe, then each week you’ll be emailed the new blog post. My hope is that a weekly email, with each email including a little new information, will help you to learn more about workplace people skills.  I know it would have helped me, when I was starting to learn this material.

I’m no expert in teaching this material.  So far, the main person I’ve taught is myself!  But I know what’s worked for me in my learning journey, and hope to be able to  share it.  I hope it improves your working life as greatly as it has improved mine.

(Note: currently there is only one “subscribe” option for my entire site.  So while most of what I post in the next 6 months will be about Skilled Dialogue, you may also receive the occasional post on other topics. )

Challenges for 2013

Reflecting on the end of another year, I feel that the interesting challenges in Agile are not about process, but instead about people.

Promoting and Enhancing People Skills

This has been a theme of this blog for sometime. The challenge for 2013, to myself and to anyone else who’s interested in the Agile community, is, “How can we encourage the development of better skills in this area?”  It’s one thing to highlight the fact that the Agile community seems to have forgotten its original value of “People over process”, it’s another to actually put the people-first approach into practice.  I see a lot of potential in the ideas of Chris Argyris, and in the techniques described in Crucial Conversations.  But how do we translate those ideas into our day-to-day work?  How do we encourage and help other people to use those ideas?  And, what other ideas should be be also taking on board? 

Knowledge vs Skill

We tend to think that, if we can just know the “right” thing to do – the right way to unit test, the right way to plan an iteration etc – then the problem will  be solved.  But much of human performance is not just about knowledge, it’s also about skill.  On an intellectual level, I “know” how to play tennis – but I seldom translate that knowledge into a winning performance on the court. 

When we look at the way we, and our team, are performing on a software project, it’s tempting to treat any deficiency as a deficiency of knowledge – something that could be addressed by training.  But really there are at least 5 different aspects to performance:

  1. Knowledge.  You can get this through training, or you can follow a defined process.  I think we put too much of “agile” into this bucket.
  2. Short-term skill: skill that can be developed, through practice and experience, during the course of the project.  Investing in such skills early in the project will pay off during the course of the project.    But it’s hard to draw the line between this and the next….
  3. Long-term skill development.  This is deep expertise, which takes about 10,000 hours to develop.  You need at least some of your team members to have such expertise,  since without it your project will be much more difficult.  But since this kind of expertise takes years to develop, they can’t get it during the project.  They must have it before you start.  (However, just because a person is experienced, that’s no guarantee they have this kind of expertise.  Some experienced people do, some don’t.  Simplistically, its the difference between learning from one’s mistakes, versus merely repeating them.)
  4. Innate general mental ability: this is the “RAM capacity” and “CPU speed” of the person’s brain.   To suggest that these qualities differ between people is both politically incorrect and self-evidently true.
  5. Conscientiousness – the personal, internal motivation to work carefully and produce a successful outcome.  Research suggest conscientiousness plays a significant role in job performance.

For agile coaches, I hope this list poses a challenge to you, to extend your practice into the longer-term aspects of skill (#2 and #3).

For team managers, I hope this list underscores the importance (and difficulty!) of recruiting well.

For all of us, I hope this list reminds us that #3 on the list, expertise, is something that we must take individual responsibility for developing, within ourselves. It’s important because it has more impact on our success than short-term knowledge (#1) and skill (#2).  It is worth investing in because it is probably easier to to change your level of expertise than your level of intelligence (#4) or your personality (#5).  But, we must take responsibility for it ourselves, because the 10,000 hours it takes to develop will probably span many different jobs, and so can’t be left to any one employer.

Expecting and Accepting Individual Differences

When a doctor gives medication, she expects that different patients will respond to the same drug in different ways.  Some may require higher doses than others.  Same may have an adverse reaction to the exact same drug.

So why then, do we fall into the trap of one-size-fits-all agile?  Individuals differ greatly in their mix of the above 5 factors that contribute to performance.  Furthermore, the projects we work on, and the organisations we work in, also differ greatly.  So a given “prescription” for how to build software may be appropriate for some but not others.

The easy part here is to recognise the project context.  It’s easy to look around and see that projects are different.  The hard part is to recognise the differences within us.  When I read code, what goes on in my head may be very different from what goes on in my colleagues head – but of the two brains working on the problem, I only get to look inside one, my own.  It is naive (but common!) to assume that my colleague’s brain experiences the problem in a similar way to my own.  (By the way, I’ve found Advocacy and Inquiry helpful here.  It’s helped me to enquire not just into what other people are thinking, but into the data and evidence that underlie their thoughts – data and evidence that I might not have seen.  This can be as simple as asking questions like “Could you give me an example?” or “What happened when you tried this in the past?”)


So, these are the issues that I find most challenging and relevant as 2013 dawns.  Can you suggest any relevant links, resources or thoughts? 

Advocacy and Inquiry

Have you ever wondered why it is so hard to achieve real change in organisations?  Have you ever wondered why organisations don’t really seem to learn?  Have you ever feared that, in spite of all the talk about change, it will really amount to nothing in the long run?

There’s little-known answer to these questions, backed by several decades of research.  It’s not an easy answer, since it shows the true reasons why these problems are so incredibly hard to solve.  The solution requires commitment, patience and humility.  …But then, if you think about it, you already knew there wouldn’t be an easy solution, right?  :-)

In a nutshell

The heart of the problem is that we don’t learn because we don’t communicate effectively.  When humans communicate, we tend to value these things:

  • achieve my goals (as defined by me)
  • win, don’t lose
  • avoid triggering negative emotions in myself or others

Prof. Chris Argyris of Harvard University has found that these core values, or “governing variables” as  he calls them, underlie most human communication.  People espouse all sorts of ideas about we ought to communicate, but when Argyis and his colleagues observed how people actually do communicate, they found these same values occurred over and over again – across cultures, across genders and across many thousands of people.  I don’t know whether these values are encoded in our DNA, a pattern our minds subconsciously settle on, or something instilled in us by our culture(s) during childhood. (The latter seems most likely to me, but that’s just a guess).

In any case, these values form a consistent pattern of human communication, which is referred to by authors in the field as “Unilateral Control”. “Unilateral” because the decision to exert control is made without consultation or discussion – we just do it. “Control” because we’re trying to control the situation. We’re trying to control the other person’s reactions (e.g. don’t upset them) and we’re trying to control their decisions (e.g. to get our own way).

One consequence of the Unilateral Control is that, in trying to prevent triggering negative emotions, people make incorrect guesses.  Rather than seeking the other party’s true thoughts, via genuine dialog, a person will guess or presume the other person’s thoughts and never put the guesses to the test.  So we end up walking around our offices assuming that certain people have “bad” goals or intentions, without ever testing to see if our assumptions are actually true. (Often they are not).  Wikipedia describes a few familiar symptoms: withholding information, creating rules to censor information and behaviour, and holding private meetings (aka talking about people behind their backs).

The values of “win; don’t lose” and “achieve my goals (as I define them)”  also hinder the free and full exchange of information.  All in all, Unilateral Control causes people to withhold relevant thoughts and information.  Deprived of full information, our organisations fail to learn.

What’s the alternative?

Argyris suggests that we should adopt the following value set instead.

  • give and receive valid information
  • favour informed choice for all concerned (as opposed to unilateral control)
  • take mutual responsibility for “looking out” for each other

So we become more concerned with sharing what is on our minds, and equally we become more concerned with helping others to share what is on their minds. (Even when its different from our own views.).  This is described as “Mutual Learning”.  “Mutual” because both parties are active and valued participants, and “Learning” because both parties are seeking, and giving, valid information.  Mutual Learning requires that we advocate our own thoughts with skill and openness; and inquire into the thoughts of others with skill (again) and curiosity.  We want to get the full picture flowing both ways: out of our own heads and into the group’s consciousness, and out of each other member of the group and into our own awareness.

When engaging in Mutual Learning, we should not be hamstrung by the desire to avoid causing offence.  I’m not suggesting an open licence to cause deliberate offense, but rather a recognition that our normal cop-outs are self-defeating.  When we avoid raising awkward issues, we ultimately let down ourselves and also the person who our silence is supposedly “protecting”.

[Update 26 Jan 2015: I’ve put together a new summary of Unilateral Control and Mutual Learning, with wording that I like somewhat better.]

More evidence

You might not have heard of Argyris’s work before.  But you probably will have heard of other people who have independently discovered the same ideas.  For instance, the authors of the book Crucial Conversations  followed around individuals who were good at “getting things done” in the workplace. The authors analysed the behaviour of these communication stars, to find out how they did it.  The answer centres around adding one’s own contributions to the group’s “pool of meaning”, and helping others to do likewise. I see Crucial Conversations as a excellent “how to” manual for Mutual Learning.

The classic guidebook to negotiation, Getting to Yes, emphasises sharing of valid information instead of “winning” one’s opening position.

Bob Sutton of Stanford writes a great blog, and summarizes the same ideas with the phrase

Argue like you’re right; listen like you’re wrong

Why is it so difficult?

There’s a danger that all of the above will sound like common sense.  And to some degree it is.  Its easy to look at, and say, “Yes, I think that’s a good idea”.  It’s much harder is to actually put it into practice.  When it comes to Unilateral Control, we’ve each had a whole lifetime of practice.  So it is deeply ingrained in us and we use it instinctively.  So this is the real challenge: not simply to believe that Mutual Learning is the right way to go, but to actually act consistently with that belief in our moment-by-moment conversations.

It is easy to fail.  People can agree with the idea of Mutual Learning, but still have trouble putting it into practice.  Argyris calls this the difference between espoused theory (the theory we claim to believe) and theory-in-use (the theory implied by what we actually do).  I recently experienced the difference first hand.  While having a conversation with a manager, I felt that the manager was becoming upset so I backed away from fully expressing myself.  By refraining from fully expressing myself I was preventing Mutual Learning and reverting to Unilateral Control. I had unilaterally decided to “control” his reaction by withholding information.  And what was the topic of our conversation?  We were talking about Mutual Learning!!!  In a conversation about these very issues, I slipped back into Unilateral Control when the going got tough!

Why do we fall back into our old habits? Because we are accustomed to them — very skilled in them, in fact.  We are much less skilled in Mutual Learning.  So when the going gets tough, we unconsciously fall back to our old ways.

What do we need to do?

Practice.  Effective communication requires practice, just like playing tennis, reading music or programming a computer.  You won’t be perfect when you first start practicing, but everyone has to start somewhere.

It also helps to obtain some up-front knowledge of the topic.  Something to “seed” our practice. Two great starting points are the books Crucial Conversations, which I see as a manual for Mutual Learning, and Discussing the Undiscussable which is a beginner’s guide to Argyris’s work. [If you buy the latter book from Amazon, be sure to order the hard copy rather than the e-book, because only the hard copy comes with the DVD showing example conversations]

You can find additional resources at Benjamin Mitchell’s blog, at Action Design, and a particularly good and comprehensive overview here.

How do you pronounce Argyris? I believe it’s “Ar” as in “car”, “gi” as in “gift”, and “ris” as in “risk”, with the emphasis being on the first syllable.

Finally, I hope to post more on this topic myself over the coming months.  So stay tuned…  In the meantime, please leave questions, comments, and links to additional resources below.


(*) Instead of the user-friendly terms Unilateral Control and Mutual Learning,  Argyris himself uses the terms “Model I” and “Model II” – with a self-deprecating grin at the blandness of the names.

Update 24 May 2014: I edited this post to improve readability and make the terminology more consistent.