Saturday, 28 May 2016

Some Communication Patterns

Communication is fundamental. I've been visiting it recently (see related posts below).

Good product or software development generally has good communication involved. Yes, you will alway find outliers that are specialists at something that have poor communication skills. But, in my experience, the best managers, the best developers, the best architects, the best testers have good to very good communication skills.

In the late nineties I read "The User Illusion" [1] - a difficult read but one I found enlightening. One of the main points I took away from it was how we communicate, how we exchange and discard information and some of the pre-requisites to information exchange.

There is an implicit need to synchronise before we really exchange information and communicate. Synchronise - to understand (to some extent) the context of the person(s) one is communicating with.
Tip: Remember this!
In the last 6-7 years I've encountered other models - the Satir Interaction model [2], the idea of dialogues as a means to understanding [3] and even ideas around idea recording [4]

Communication Skills or System of Communication?
Communication skills are not about broadcasting messages, or being loud - prepared to stand on a soapbox or just being talkative or even argumentative.

Here, for communication skills read: the set of skills to help someone be understood - discussing an idea or message in a way appropriate to the other person/people, and also to listen and reflect on what the other person/people are saying.

A system of communication is the interaction - where an idea gets refined or examined and how. So people can have great communication skills but the communication (system) doesn't work for a number of reasons.

Spotting dysfunctional communication

Some Communication Anti-Patterns [and Antidotes]

- Being fixed on one explanation.
[Make alternative explanations visible or ask for alternative explanations. See Weinberg's "rule of three"]
- Listening for a gap rather than listening to understand. Waiting to speak, make your own statement rather than digging into what the person is saying, exploring and understanding.
[Try, "Tell me more", "why do you say that?", "should I try to explain my reasoning?", "shall we follow my train of thought so we understand what it's grounded in?", "shall we take this discussion at another time?"]
- Not asking for explanations or giving examples.
[Try, "Can you give an example?", "Shall I try to give an example in use?", "Is it clear or could it be misinterpreted without example?" ]
- Hidden frames, assumptions or agendas. This can be the case that someone is following a particular line of thought or argument and doesn't want to divert from that.
[Try, "can you explain the concern or importance for this particular idea". Tip: what is your own set of frames, assumptions and implications? Are they clear or hidden?]
- Dismissive elements, e.g. "that's a rubbish/stupid idea/thought".
[This is probably a symptom or result of one of the above patterns. Tip: take a break, pause and reflect.]
A Communication Checklist

- Did I understand what the other means?
[Are we "synchronised", do I understand their context?]
Tip: Ask for help? "I don't understand", "can you give an example"]
- Is there a value (or risk) in this person's idea/opinion?
[What's their frame of reference? Can they contribute something I've missed?]
Wait, that's rather a short checklist?????? If you combine these and iterate on the communication anti-patterns above, it might be all you need. [Challenge: add & refine this!]

The motivation (goal) should be to understand rather than change. If you start from the premise that, "this person is wrong" you're probably not open to the signals (consequences) of a particular line of thought.

Communication is to exchange, spread and refine ideas. And I assert that "healthy" communication is subject to the scientific approach.

If you take a "scientific" approach then you are examining data/ideas and understanding if they change your own ideas or ways in which they should be expressed. There's no way you can know your ideas are correct for ever. Anyone can bring a point of view, perspective or consequence that hasn't been examined before.

If someone brings an idea that has "bad" consequences (from your perspective) then point it out - demonstrate it.

But, what about the "crazies" or people who won't listen to reason? Well, if you've pointed to your reasoning and demonstrated your case (check: have you?) and are still convinced that your idea/opinion is correct or better --> then either walk-away or stick around and put up with it (if the value/potential gain of sticking around is greater than the risk of walking away).
This applies to personal communication between friends/colleagues and between you and your manager/stakeholder in the workplace.  
Note: I listen out for bad ideas - not necessarily to confirm the correctness of my own ideas (there is always a risk for this). Rather, it can be a useful tool to look for flaws in ideas and arguments. That's feedback on your own ideas and the way that you have tried to spread them. It's useful feedback on whether your own system of communication works.

If you don't take a "scientific" approach - what are you doing? Are you creating a belief system, cult or echo chamber? There are plenty of those....

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