From coder to communicator

From coder to communicator

What role does mediation play in a software development environment? Marc Steene from our development team discusses lessons learnt from a recent two-day course

To many people, the word “programmer” or “software developer” conjures up images of a lone individual toiling away in a dark room till the early hours of the morning, completely isolated from the rest of humanity. While programmers of that ilk no doubt exist, in most professional environments technical ability alone is not enough to succeed.

Non-trivial projects require multiple individuals to collaborate, and much like threads working concurrently on a task, communication is essential to ensure progress is being made and work completed efficiently.

However, communication is a very general term – what does it mean in practice? It encompasses a plethora of skills including planning, concise explanation of ideas, conflict resolution and more. Unfortunately, these skills are often neglected in formal academia despite being so essential. Perhaps there is a misconception that good communication skills are something that cannot be taught.

Opportunities to learn

Working at Epro provides many opportunities for travel and training. Less than three weeks ago I was in Paris attending the React Europe 2017 conference, which my co-worker Andy Davies has written an article about. A month prior to that I was offered the chance to attend a two-day course based in Guernsey focusing on mediation. An effective mediator must be acutely aware of what are mostly unconscious processes, such as body language, phrasing and inflection of speech. These are subsets of general communication skills, and given their importance I jumped at the opportunity to improve them.

A peaceful bayside with the sun shining on docked boats in Guernsey

A quick introduction from the other attendees made it apparent just how versatile these skills are. They came from a variety of professions including two barristers, a musician and a nun. The two days mostly consisted of short presentations given by a pair of experienced mediators introducing the key concepts followed by roleplay sessions. The roleplays consisted of a conflict involving two individuals and a mediator who must try to resolve that conflict. We all had the opportunity to participate in each of the roles and give input while observing. The roleplays were very effective at getting me to internalise the ideas talked about in the presentations.

A wide range of concepts were discussed across the two days but I’ll focus on a couple which resonated with me and have had the biggest impact on my personal and professional life.

The importance of active listening

The first of these is a concept known as ‘active listening’. When in conversation, our default behaviour is to listen to respond. This is fine for normal conversation with friends, however when dealing with a stranger that you need to build a bond of trust with in a short period of time, active listening is usually a more effective technique. It involves attempting to understand at a deeper level what another person is saying, to comprehend their point of view and understand the emotions driving it. In practice, this means avoiding interruptions and giving only the minimal input required to guide the interaction. Building trust is an essential part of the mediation process to get the other person to open up and progress towards a resolution. Active listening is a powerful method to achieve this.

Another concept was the importance of phrasing. Words have certain connotations associated with them, and the intonation and inflection of the sentence has a big impact on how the other person perceives what is being said. One example that springs to mind is a phrase I used while acting as a mediator during one of the roleplays. In short, a dispute had occurred between an experienced member of a company who was being irrational and a new, inexperienced employee who had made a minor mistake.

While talking with the experienced employee, I asked the question: “As an experienced employee, could you not understand why she acted this way?”. This was immediately flagged by the actual mediators as sounding like an accusation despite that not being my intention. Instead, they recommended phrasing the question as follows: “You’re an experienced employee who has worked here for many years, perhaps she wasn’t yet aware of how these things worked within the company due to her lack of experience?”. Although the point of the question remained the same, the rephrased version is much more positive and likely to elicit a good reaction.

I keep this in mind when having conversations to ensure the other person perceives my points as intended. This helps prevent unnecessary conflict and makes sure I am being concise when presenting points and ideas.

At Epro we have an agile development team and the skills I learned on the course are invaluable to our collaborative work. I’d recommend that anyone working in a team based environment takes some time to focus on these skills as it will pay dividends down the line, whether through a training course or simply spending time researching books and online blogs.