Effective workplace communication — Where to start?

Jennifer Payne | October 18th, 2017 | , ,

Effective workplace communication

“People’s minds are changed through observation and not through argument.”
—Will Rogers

When I was first introduced to the world of software development (with very little experience), I knew I had found my calling. I started working in Quality Assurance (QA) and LOVED it. I knew this was what I was meant to do. I had an inherent skill I was unaware of that made me perfect for QA — I loved searching and finding things and discovered that “bugs” seemed to find me. I had the “QA mindset,” but my technical skills were lacking.

I began learning as much as possible; taking classes at our local community college, getting tutored from developers at work. I pursued anything and everything around technology, soaking it all in to improve my new found ability.

As I continued working in QA, I started to notice other things going on around me, things not related to technology at all. It was the people and how they interacted with each other.

I saw contention between teams and individuals everywhere — between developers and the QA team, between the QA team and the product team. I would say to myself, “Aren’t we all on the same team? Why is it these teams and individuals don’t get along?” There were a lot of people I really enjoyed working with, but their interactions with one another confused me.

One of the key attributes to a “QA Mindset” is curiosity, so naturally this disconnect made me curious. I sought to find the answers. As I observed, I realized most of the communication going on was ineffective, and sometimes destructive, despite working with well-meaning, talented people. And, I saw no one working to improve in this area.

I realized no matter how talented people are, when they are unable to communicate effectively, it makes everyone’s job more difficult and less enjoyable.

Once I came to this realization, I worked hard to implement better communication with individuals and teams. I wanted those around me to be happy and find fulfillment in their work. I knew through positive interactions and effective communication this could be possible. When teams feel safe and are communicating effectively, everyone benefits, including the company.

However,  poor communication can introduce unnecessary stress, and make things go downhill real fast.

Just one poor interaction with a colleague can negatively affect you, and can stay with you a long time. We try to “let it go” but in reality we need to address it directly. If we don’t, those negative interactions will continue to build up, piling on top of one other. The negative experiences begin to outweigh the positive ones and we reach a tipping point — tempers flare, people shut down, everyone suffers.

Negative interactions need to be addressed and resolved. In fact, these interactions we thought to be negative can actually turn into positive, feel good experiences. And when these positive experiences continue to build up, we can be happy and truly enjoy our work.

Communicating effectively is hard, so we naturally turn away from it and will avoid it, sometimes at all costs.

We’re not deliberately taught how to be effective communicators on our path through life. I have not one memory as a child, or as a young adult, of anyone deliberately teaching me about communication. I didn’t even realize that communication was a “thing” people could do well or poorly. Most of us just go through life talking (a lot of times yelling) and having difficult situations arise, completely unaware that ineffective communication is at the heart of those negative interactions.

Recognizing the communication going on around us (good and bad), and understanding how it affects us and our colleagues, is the first step toward improvement.

An exercise in observation

Before we can improve, we must first understand what needs to be improved. Most of us are unaware of the “type” of communication going on around us, so first, we must observe. Observing can become quite overwhelming if we’re not focused on the outcome of our observations.

The first step is to observe yourself and your team. Here is a list of questions to guide you. For each one, list three reasons that support your answer. As you observe, pay attention to people’s tone, body language, and facial expressions. Look for patterns and write down the first thoughts that come to you. When you are done you will have a clearer picture of your team’s communication style and should get you headed in the right direction. There will be more to come on this topic in future posts.

  • Who on your team works well together?
  • Who doesn’t quite “click?”
  • Who do you work well with?
  • What conversations do you or the team experience that seem painful?
  • Who do you observe as being an effective communicator?
  • Who isn’t effective in their communication?
  • If you could give this person one tip on improving their communication what would that be?
  • Do you or others shy away from conflict? Maybe just with certain people?
  • What are you observing that isn’t working?
  • What are you observing that is working?
  • In meetings, is there anyone that makes others go silent or clam up (aka, suck the air out of the room)?
  • Is there someone that adds positive energy to the meetings?

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John Reeve
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John Reeve

John is a co-founder, web designer and developer at Pelago. His blog posts are inspired by everyday encounters with designers, developers, creatives and small businesses in general. John is an avid reader and road cyclist.
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Jennifer Payne
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Jennifer Payne

Jennifer is the Director of Quality and Efficiency at Pelago. Her blog posts are based largely on her experience working with teams to improve harmony and productivity. Jennifer is a cat person.
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Braden Jones
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Braden Jones

Braden is a co-founder and strategist at Pelago. His blog posts draw from his worldwide business travels and forays into the retail apparel industry. Braden loves to surf and recently adopted a Doka named Moose.
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Michael Payne
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Michael Payne

Michael is a co-founder and product architect at Pelago. His contributions stem from experiences managing the development process behind web sites and web-based applications such as Intervals. Michael drives a 1990 Volkswagen Carat with a rebuilt 2.4 liter engine from GoWesty.
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