A Developer’s Guide to Collaborative Communication

No-one likes dealing with difficult people or situations. But Collaborative Communication gives you a way to move forward without arguments or hard feelings.

“Here we go again!”, you say to yourself.

The tasks have been allocated, the queries resolved, the feedback discussed. Without a doubt, this meeting is over. In fact, it was scheduled to end half an hour ago. But the project manager is still talking… just like he does every single time you meet up with him.

It’s becoming a problem. His endless, trivial chit-chat drains your energy, sours your mood and wastes valuable time – not just yours, but everyone else’s too. So what are you going to do?

Let’s review your options one by one.

Put up with it

Option 1 is to keep quiet, knuckle down and just bulldoze your way through. After all, you’re just one person, and your thoughts and feelings aren’t really relevant, right? All you want to do is work through your tickets, fix your code and head to the bar when 5pm rolls round. And you don’t need to feel good to do that.

It’s true that you are just one person. But especially in a complex process like software development, one person’s mood can have an outsized “butterfly effect” on the whole.

If you feel bad about your work, you might start withholding information, working slowly, or even skipping tasks altogether – either unconsciously, or in an effort to “get back” at the person who’s annoying you. Or even if your work doesn’t suffer, your mood might go downhill, so you start being bad company for the rest of your team. As the impacts ripple out to the people around you, the knock-on effects can be significant.

A cog in the machine may be small, but it’s there for a reason. And the machine may not work without it.

Pass the buck

Let’s assume you’ve decided to grasp the nettle and take action. If you have a supervisor or team leader, you could ask her to have a quiet word with the project manager on your behalf. “Just ask him to cut down on the chit-chat,” you say. “So we can go back to work and get something done.”

In the short term, you get the problem off your desk. But assuming your supervisor takes action – which isn’t guaranteed – she and the project manager will have a conversation, but you won’t be there. You’ll never know what they said, or what they agreed. What if your supervisor comes back and tells you “It’s all sorted,” but then the project manager suddenly starts acting oddly around you, ignoring you, or picking on you in meetings?

You are worse off than before. At first, the issue was just his talking. Now, you have to deal with his mystifying behaviour as well.

The problem with trying to shift responsibility is that you’re not just posting a complaint in the feedback box, and your supervisor isn’t merely passing on a message. This is something you need to resolve yourself.

Send a message

So how about dropping some hints during the meeting? You could yawn, clear your throat, roll your eyes, shift in your seat or start checking your watch. Or you could try just standing up, saying something like “Well, it’s time we got back to work,” and leaving the meeting room.

It might work – but it’s risky, and you’ll probably just cause offence. Before, you thought the project manager was an arsehole – but now he thinks you’re an arsehole, too. You’ll double the negative energy in the room, but without resolving a thing.

Confront him

So why not just come out with it? Tell the guy he’s being selfish, or he can’t see what he’s doing, or he’s ruining the project. OK, things might escalate, get a little heated. But maybe it would be good for everyone to get things off their chest and clear the air, right?

Maybe. But when the dust settles, you’ll probably just go back to the way things were. After all, you never agreed to do anything different – you just argued. Or, worse, you’ll have such a blazing row that the atmosphere is ruined, the team breaks up or the project fails. Overall, the confrontational approach will either lead to the wrong change, or to no change at all.

Beyond blame

We’re no closer to solving our problem. So let’s take a look at what’s going on here, at a deeper level.

In all the scenarios above, you’re blaming the situation on the project manager. He’s talking too much. He’s wearing you out. He’s making you feel like crap. If only he would just shut up, you wouldn’t be feeling that way.

But it’s not so simple. When you say someone is “making you feel” something, you’re conflating the trigger (here, the project manager’s chatter) with the source of the feeling (yourself). In reality, those two things are separate: a stimulus and a response. And one doesn’t inevitably lead to the other.

We’re all responsible (“response-able”) for the way we react to people and events in our lives. But whenever we blame someone else for how we feel, we give away control. We start playing the victim and feeling sorry for ourselves, instead of using the power we have to make a change.

So how can you resolve a difficult situation without blame?

Introducing Collaborative Communication

One approach that I’ve seen applied successfully is Collaborative Communication (also known as Nonviolent Communication), developed by Marshall Rosenberg.

With Collaborative Communication, you start off by telling the other person three things:

These come together in a simple but powerful sentence that takes the form:

When you do [trigger], I feel [feeling], because I need [need].

In this case, you might say:

When you chat in meetings after we’ve finished the agenda, I feel anxious, because I need the time to get my work done without rushing.

It reminds of a user story, except you’re turning it round to describe a scenario you don’t want to come about.

Note that you’re not trying to bully, blackmail or manipulate the project manager into talking less. You’re trying to reach an understanding so you both want the same thing – the thing that will meet your needs.

How it works

Feelings are universal. We all have them, and we can all relate to them. So as long as you name your emotion precisely and honestly, the other person will know exactly how you feel. That forges a new connection between you. And once there’s a connection, you will want to help each other out.

What’s more, true feelings don’t imply guilt. They express nothing but the state of the self: happy, shocked, angry, sad, anxious, afraid, worried, relieved. So when you say, “I feel anxious,” you are not blaming anybody. It’s just the way you feel – nothing more, nothing less.

Now, how you frame a feeling matters. For example, if you say you feel “disrespected”, that is not a feeling but a judgement: you blame someone for disrespecting you. As soon as you imply wrongdoing, the other person will feel attacked, and likely won’t hear you. You need to dig down to the underlying feeling. In the end, most negative feelings boil down to some degree of anger, sadness or fear.

Your needs show the other person how they can help you, through the new connection you share. They are also about the self, but they can be a little harder to uncover. You may need to quiz yourself by asking something like, “Why am I feeling anxious? Is it because I need…?”

In the “talkative project manager” example, your need might be:

The final piece of the opening sentence is the trigger. Here, the key is to focus on observable behaviour.

For example, it won’t be helpful to say “When you talk too much in meetings…” How much is “too much”? Obviously, the project manager doesn’t share your definition, or he wouldn’t be talking. If you describe the trigger in general, abstract terms, you’ll just wind up arguing head-to-head about what’s actually going on.

Instead, refer to objective and specific realities, like “When you spoke for half an hour after we’d finished the agenda on Thursday…”. Provided they remember clearly, everyone can agree on that.

As you can see, it’s vital to be clear and honest about the trigger, your feelings and your needs. If you’re vague in your description, or you try to manipulate the other person, it won’t work. Also, it might take some practice before you’ll be able to express feelings and needs in a natural way. So my advice is to try it out in a low-stakes situation first.

Collaborative Communication is a dialogue, not just a one-time statement. So in this example, you’ll want to discover the project manager’s needs too. What makes him want to talk? Maybe he gets lonely working on his own, or he finds silence awkward, or he finds that conversation throws up new ideas. Once you know what’s driving him, you can talk about other ways for him to meet his own needs.

Also, bear in mind that we’re only scratching the surface here – there’s a lot more to Collaborative Communication than we can cover in this brief post. (If you have a spare three hours, this fascinating video with Marshall Rosenberg is a great way to learn more.)

Why needs matter

Now, you might be thinking “What do needs have to do with work?” or “I don’t want to start talking about my feelings in the workplace!”

Indeed, emotions may be frowned upon at work – supposed to be ignored, rather than listened to or talked about. We may also feel afraid of revealing our needs, in case we make ourselves vulnerable or open ourselves up to exploitation.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Like physical pain, negative feelings are a sign that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. And if the process is broken, you will end up with mediocre work at best.

Even if you believe that Collaborative Communication is not for you, once you are no longer happy at work, you have to ask yourself what you want. Do you want to spend your working day feeling frustrated and resentful, or do you want to be part of a productive team and build something of value?

Marshall Rosenberg used to say that Collaborative Communication was about “making life wonderful”. If you have a chance to improve your working life, you should surely take it. You owe it to your work, your team, and yourself.

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