Do you read me? – Better communication for stronger teams

This talk was first presented at EmpireJS New York in September 2018. Full speaker notes and slides below.

Image credit: Many of the images in the slides below are by WoCinTech Chat and licensed under CC-BY. I’d like to thank the community for creating these amazing pictures.

Have you ever heard the word

Fingerspitzengefühl? It’s German and literally translates to

finger-tip feeling – having Fingerspitzengefühl describes being able to handle sensitive situations with care, tact, empathy, and consideration for others – and it’s a very useful skill in working with humans.

English is only my second language – My native language is German, and that English accent you’re hearing – that’s a souvenir of all the people I ever worked with. German is the language I grew up with, and the language that brought to you our famous compound nouns. Like with Fingerspitzengefühl, we’re able to connect nouns – to add depth, specificity, for fun, or for historic reasons, like with

Torschlusspanik – literally gate closure panic: It’s the fear of missing out on big opportunities or life achievements because you’re running out of time.
This term originated in medieval times when many German towns were encircled by thick walls. Every night, gates of the town would be shut – so during sunset, people would hurry to get back into the town, fearing not to make it on time and be locked out, having to spend the night in the dark, dangerous wilderness. Hence the term – gate closure panic – Torschlusspanik.

But in German, we don’t just have cool compound nouns,we also have colourful idioms:

When someone is saying a lot to you without much substance you can say they’re talking a meatball onto your ear – or, in German: Jemandem eine Frikadelle ans Ohr labern.

And when we’re not understanding anything at all, we say: I only understand train station: Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof.

Only understanding train station, or a meatball on someone’s ear, are at least in German very good signs that communication has gone very wrong.

Many other signs of bad communication are a little less visible: like stress, unmet expectations, frustration, lack of innovation, decreased productivity, and even increased downtime. Bad communication creates a ripple effect that can create mistrust and erode relationships across an entire organisation.

And yet, there’s a widely spread idea in our industry that engineers wouldn’t need communication skills. This is an incredibly dangerous misconception:Communication is part of our work every day:

  • It’s in what we say or sign: in meetings, at the water cooler, in the hallway.
  • It’s in what we write: In code, comments, Pull Requests, code reviews, or messages.
  • It’s in the nonverbal: In our body posture, facial expression.
  • It’s in the visual, like in typography and symbols.

Engineering requires being able to express complex concepts to different people, and in our teams, we need a shared language to be able to exchange knowledge and learn together.

At its core, engineering is about making decisions and tradeoffs. As an industry, we need engineers who communicate, who ask questions before writing the first line of code. To make the right decisions and tradeoffs, you need to have a shared understanding with the people you’re working with.

This is why you cannot be a good engineer without being an effective communicator.

Slide image credit: WoCinTech Chat, CC-BY

And being a good communicator will strengthen your team:

Communication is about building relationships. Honestly, there’s no better way to feel that than when you’re standing in a too small room in Berlin with 15 people, waiting for the laptop in the center of the circle to connect with the rest of your team who are in a meeting room in Lagos, Nigeria, — and having the call drop, once, twice, three, four times, — and finally being able to hear your colleagues.

Good communication improves everyone’s motivation, increases productivity, improves work results – and it makes strong teams.

So what does it mean to communicate well? — Over the last 13 years, I have had the honour of working with many extraordinary people and teams in Europe, Asia, Australia, the Americas, and West Africa. The main thing all these teams have taught me is how vital being intentional is in our communication – good communication doesn’t happen “organically”.
We need to be deliberate about it.

Good communication gets a point across clearly and coherently – it’s effective, and it’s about understanding, and being understood. This is why we always need to be deliberate about our communication, and we need to communicate effectively in inclusive ways, to ensure understanding. if there’s one thing you take away from this talk, make this your guiding principle in your daily work going forward.

Over the next minutes, I want to share with you what I learned from my teammates about how you can communicate more effectively and inclusively in engineering teams.

Slide image credit: WoCinTech Chat, CC-BY

And the first step is in reflecting on how you show up and what you bring when you communicate.

  • Show up with humbleness, with genuine interest and curiosity, and with a desire to build a relationship. Leave your ego at the door.
  • Be open in admitting your limits. It’s okay to say “I don’t know.” This can be hard, no matter if you’re only starting out in your career, or if you have a lot of experience already, because all of us want to be perceived as knowledgeable, and unfortunately, in some teams, this gets treated as a sign of weakness. But it is and needs to be okay not to know everything.
  • Understand power dynamics. Communication is essential work – but often falls to members of underrepresented groups in tech, oftentimes femme people. But everyone of us needs to do this work, especially all of us who have some form of power. Power can come through seniority, special expertise, good connections in your company, or through rank or title. Power gives our words and actions more weight. All of us who have such power should be extra mindful in how we communicate, and use this power to take on some of this communication work for our teams. And if you have such power, being open about your limits and admitting what you don’t know can be a great way to use this power.
  • Emotional awareness is another important aspect, and can be a challenge to learn.— Many of us grew up with specific ideas of what it means to be a “real man.” Often, these are very narrow, repressive ideas, like having to be strong, dominant, and never displaying emotions, because emotions are considered a sign of weakness. These ideas are often summarised under the term “toxic masculinity”. Many men have been brought up to strive for this ideal of masculinity, and it’s still prevalent in our societies. This ideal is very harmful for men themselves, as it doesn’t allow them to fully express themselves and their emotions. And it’s harmful for others, as it leaves no room for emotional awareness, empathy, and for working to communicate better, because communication is considered a “soft skill” and “unmanly”. Men, especially cis white straight men, are still the majority in the tech industry. These ideas of what it means to be a “real man” blend into interactions at work. The “bro culture” in many tech companies is the result of those ideas, and it’s really harmful for teams. Take time to examine your own ideas about yourself and masculinity, and think about which of them might not be helping you, or those around you. This can help you change for the better and build stronger relationships with others, – including with people you work with.
  • Practice the aforementioned finger-tip feeling or Fingerspitzengefühl –  learn to communicate with care, tact, and consideration for others. Be empathetic, and read other people’s reactions not just for what they’re saying, but also for the feelings behind it, and address them in your responses.
  • When you’re in a meeting, make sure that no one is dominating a conversation, especially yourself. Watch out for more quiet folks. Pull them into the conversation by addressing them directly: “what’s your opinion? I’d like to hear your thoughts”.

Without listening, good communication is impossible. And there are lots of things you can do to become a better listener.

  • Be open, instead of making assumptions. Assumptions mean we’re putting our own ideas of someone’s thoughts over their actual thoughts and perspective. Recognise that others bring context, expertise, and perspectives that you don’t have. Know that these can make you realise that a situation is more complex than you first thought it would be.
  • Listen to learn – not to respond. Listening with real intent means that I’m going to be open to being very wrong, and I’m comfortable with that in this conversation. Remember that conversations aren’t competitions, and they’re not for anyone to win. While you’re listening, don’t already plan your next contributions. Focus on actually listening, and be ready to have your mind changed.
  • Use a method called active listening: listen, then use phrases like “So you’re saying that…” or or “I understand that…”, and then repeat the gist of what you heard back to the speaker, to check with them if your understanding is correct. This works in one-on-one-conversations as well as in group meetings, and is a really useful way to ensure shared understanding.
  • We all want to be heard, seen, and acknowledged, but we also all have our limits. In any conversation, work to add your humble part, and strive to build on what others say: ask yourself, “what else do we need to achieve our goal?”, and use this to contribute to a great outcome. Be more invested in the result of a conversation than your own contributions.
Slide image credit: WoCinTech Chat, CC-BY

Listening well is a first great step to knowing your audience:

  • Get to know your audience, learn about their needs, and adapt your communication style to them. Some people want a lot of information, detail, context, and technical depth, others don’t – and these needs can also change depending on the subject. Show your audience how your topic relates with other topics they know about. Consider how they may react to what you’re conveying.
  • Be culturally aware. Be mindful when you’re using references, industry jargon, idioms, expressions, or jokes, as they’re often only accessible to a small group. Anything that has layers of meaning can be super tricky to navigate, and far too easily misunderstood, so be mindful with it.
  • The less you know your audience and the weaker your relationship with them, the more you should be mindful in how you communicate, and the more you should be asking questions and reading their signals, so you can adapt.

  • Use neutral questions. “How did you like my great Pull Request with all these amazing ideas I implemented?” – that’s a leading question: it already carries a glowing opinion, so it increases the barrier for the respondent to share a different opinion. Leave your biases and opinions out of questions as much as you can, and ask neutral questions: “how did you like my Pull Request?”
  • Use open questions. They can help you uncover information and learn something new. Start your questions with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “how,” or “why”, like: “What did you think about my Pull Request?”
  • You can learn more by using follow-up questions. They signal that you are listening, care, and want to know more. Ask: “what makes you say that?”, or “why do you take this approach?” to dig deeper.
  • I love questions that help us learn. “What should we do differently next time?”, or “What can we learn from this that might be useful to us in the future?” are great to help us continuously improve.
  • And: give the other person space to answer. Silence isn’t a void that always needs to be filled. Give people space to think and respond, and in the meantime, enjoy the silence.

When communication goes wrong, it often has to do with expectations that weren’t met: like when a project turns out to be a failure, or a piece of work doesn’t get ready on time, and it’s too late to change course. This is why timing and clear expectations are really important.

  • Clarify what you expect from each other as teammates, and define guidelines for how you want to communicate, the tools you use and in which ways you use them. Such guidelines can really help everyone understand what others expect of them, and help you communicate more effectively as a team.
  • Avoid surprises. Don’t wait until code review to share your direction. Communicate early and continuously to ensure shared understanding at all times.
  • Bad news should travel faster than good news, is what Bill Gates wrote. Share bad news early. it allows people to react and take action. It can be really tough to be the bearer of bad news. Unfortunately, when kept in silence, bad news has a habit of only growing worse and bigger over time. Deliver bad news as soon as you hear them. The worst bad news is late bad news.

Have you ever had a discussion about whether or not a feature should be built? Or anyone ever had a heated argument about which tool to use? Anyone? Or gotten into an argument about implementation details? This kind of situation can easily happen, it happens often – and often, it’s a warning sign that we’re discussing the wrong topics. In these situations, I like using questions to regain focus:

  • One of my favourite questions of all times is: what problem are we trying to solve? When you see a discussion go down a rabbit hole, you can throw this question as a rope to drag it back to the light of day. It helps us connect with our main goal: solving problems – for our users, our company, or our team.
  • The second question I like asking is: What is our priority? When you’re facing a lot of different tasks, it’s easy to get lost in details and lose sight of the most important ones. This question connects us to what we actually want to accomplish.
  • In discussions about communication, process, or collaboration, I like asking: What culture are we looking to build? It’s useful because culture often appears as something really abstract that’s hard to grasp. Culture is the behaviours we reward and punish, and this question can help us remember that all our actions every day are part of building culture.

These questions are relatively simple, yet straightforward, which makes them very useful for turning conversations back to what really matters.

Left image: WoCinTech Chat, CC-BY

  • Knowing your audience is especially important in writing because even in chat, the communication pace is decreased – and you often don’t get immediate reactions which you could directly respond to. In written communication, important communication layers like body language, facial expression, tone of voice, and pace of speech are stripped away. Thus, if you can anticipate concerns or questions they may have: address them upfront in your writing.
  • Use direct, simple language and short words wherever possible. Don’t use long or complicated words to impress people. Wanting to be understood should always win over your desire to sound clever.
  • Say more with fewer words, and cut out all words or sentences that don’t add to your message. Write short sentences. They’re easier to read and can also be more accessible for multicultural audiences. Keep sentences to around 15-20 words. This is around one line in many chat tools and document editors.
  • Be mindful of the voice you’re using. You can use active or passive voice, and a great way for spotting passive voice was shared by Monzo: you can detect it when you can add “by monkeys” to a sentence and it still makes sense: “The incident was investigated – by monkeys”, “The bug will be fixed – by monkeys”. Passive voice is often used in incident reports. It creates emotional distance, disconnects from context and causes, and it removes clarity. Active voice is more engaging, more personal, and clearer. It adds a layer of responsibility, because it makes ownership clear, and it helps you build trust. Use active voice wherever you can. Write: “We investigated the incident”, “I will fix the bug”.

  • With any message you send, ensure to convey your main message. Ask yourself: “What do I want the other person to do with this information?”, and include a clear call to action, request, or question to tell them what you expect or need of them.
  • Be direct, with kindness. — Written communication can sometimes feel like walking on thin ice, especially when it’s asynchronous – we want to be nice, or we come from a culture where directness is considered impolite, and we don’t want to be rude to our teammates. So we often shy away from being direct, we soften our message, and use subtlety and nuance instead, and hope the other person will interpret things in the way we mean them. – Which often leads to misunderstandings. This is why I’d like to encourage you to dare being more direct. But combine your directness with kindness, and genuine desire to help your audience understand or grow. Practically, this means:
    • Be thoughtful, don’t just blurt it out.
    • Use “I”-statements, like: I think, I would like to, I want to ask you to.
    • Use a neutral tone, and
    • be succinct.
    • Separate facts from your own feelings and observations.
    • Make straightforward, clear, and specific requests about what you want. — Being more direct with your teammates increases trust in relationships and ensures shared understanding.
  • Use Emoji, they can be really useful to get feelings across. Emotions are an important part of building relationships. But context like body language and facial expressions which convey them are missing from written language. Emoji can bring some of this context back. Emoji are also a relatively new way of communicating and they aren’t universal: we all bring our own life experiences and cultural contexts into how we translate them. This is why the only and golden rule of emoji use is, again: know your audience – the less you know them, and the weaker your relationship with them, the more you should be mindful when you use emoji.
  • Like in engineering, rewrites can be really useful for learning. Edit everything you write: simplify your language, remove unnecessary words, clarify your main message, and fix typos. If a document is important, have someone else review it. Editing can really help you learn to write better.
  • And know when to not write. Even if time zones make that hard: If you haven’t been able to clarify something after going back and forth about it twice, it’s time to talk. If something is upsetting you, it’s time to talk.

Writing better also means you can collaborate more asynchronously –

which puts you and your team into a position where you can rethink how you use synchronous time.

One of the teams I’m currently working with is distributed across 3 continents and 16 time zones, all the way from Japan to the West Coast of the US. They have a spreadsheet in which everyone lists their regular work hours. For a while, this spreadsheet contained exactly one column with one person who was always available: Batman. And yes, even Batman had a daily lunch break. This team doesn’t have any time where all of them are working and could meet.

In a team like this one, it’s clear that synchronous time is the most precious good we have. But in teams in the same location or within close time zones, we often underestimate the cost of synchronicity: it interrupts, increases context switching, and it removes focus, all of which has impact on productivity and can also impact morale.

Slide image credit: WoCinTech Chat, CC-BY

No matter if your closest teammate is on the same floor, in the same time zone, or not even on the same continent:

Learn to write better, so you can have more effective written and asynchronous communication. Reserve synchronous time for creating a shared understanding, reflecting together on how you work, and use it to discuss context and strategy – and: for strengthening relationships.

And: say thank you more often. Genuine gratitude helps strengthen relationships. When you appreciate someone’s work or actions, tell them. Be genuine, and be generous with your gratitude.
In preparation for this talk, many people on Twitter shared their learnings about communication with me, and I want to thank them. And most of all, I want to thank all the teams I worked with so far, and who taught me so much about communicating, and how to grow as teams.

So now – what about you, and your team? I want to encourage you to work on how you communicate.

Don’t talk meatballs onto other people’s ears. Instead, learn to listen well. Know your audience. Ask good questions. Communicate early and often, and about what really matters. Write better. Use synchronous time well. And say thank you more often.

Communicate effectively in inclusive ways, to ensure understanding: to make sure that your teammates don’t only understand ‘train station’. To improve your relationships with them. And — to become a stronger team.