Communication skills are essential for everyone but there aren’t a lot of places to go to learn about them. Most enterprise software development is a team activity and communication skills are a vital part of working on a team. Here are seven strategies for higher fidelity communication.
1. Know your outcome
Getting clear on the purpose of our communication helps us better achieve it. Are we communicating to convey knowledge, gather information, or demonstrate skills? Knowing what you want to achieve or the response you want to get out of any communication is a great way to start.
2. Set the context
What is this communication about? Is it fact-finding or relationship building. Having the other person know the context first can help keep everyone on the same page and makes for a better flow of information. If you want the answer to a question then letting the other person know that up front can help you more easily get the kind of information you are looking for.
3. Stay focused
The UML calls out three levels of perspectives in code: conceptual, specification, and implementation. It is virtuous to create entities in software that are concerned with only one of these perspectives. And this is true in communication as well. The conceptual perspective deals with what you want but not how you are going to get it. The specification perspective deals with how the pieces fit together, and the implementation perspective deals with the details of each piece. Focus on one perspective at a time when communicating and you’ll be better understood.
4. Verify understanding
The same words can mean different things. If I say risk is like a dog in a dark room you may think of the fierce German Shepard you knew growing up while I was thinking of my cute little poodle. To make sure we understand each other, we can verify our understanding by asking clarifying questions. For example, “When I say risk is like a dog in a dark room I mean something cute and cuddly that you can’ see.”
5. Actively listen
Listening is just as important as speaking for getting your point across because people listen better when they feel heard. Let people know you hear them by closely listening to what they say and give feedback with your body language. Try to listen beyond the words to what the other person really means. People can tell when you are trying to understand them or just listening to collect ammo for your turn to speak.
6. Ask possibility questions
Possibility questions are open-ended questions that engages the other person to think of new possibilities. They usually start with something like, “What if…”. These can’t be answered with a simple yes/no response and encourages us to think deeper. They can be useful when we are stuck on a problem or are missing the big picture.
7. Affirm their answers
When receiving an answer to a question, it is often helpful to restate the answer so you are sure you understood what the other person said. This makes the other person feel heard and helps them understand areas you might not be clear on so they can give more detail. When it is your turn to speak start by saying, “What I heard you say is…” and summarize what you understood. This helps make sure you don’t miss critical information and it really helps the other person feel heard so they can more easily hear you.
High fidelity communication generally happens when the people communicating know each other pretty well or at least well enough to trust their intent. Understanding all but the simplest things is usually a process that we have to walk others through, just like we walked through it to understand it ourselves. If we can’t do this successfully then no matter how “right” we are other’s won’t get it but if we can we can be understood then our sphere of influence can grow significantly.