Know your audience
“Know your audience” is almost a cliche, but for good reason. People listen to the messages they care about, and filter out the rest. They also internally translate everything they hear into seeking to understand how it will impact their own life. If you want to communicate successfully with those around you, you need to know who they are.
This is easier said than done – when talking to a group, you will get as many different reactions as there are people in the group. And everyone has their own personal agenda – Your manager has different goals than your peers. Each member of the team has their own career and their own slice of the work to worry about. Those add up to a wide variety of perspectives that will hear what you have to say, and an equally varied set of responses.
There are a few main tasks to improve your awareness of how everyone’s perspective will change their response:
- Think about who your teammates really are. You’ll get to know this over time as you worki with a team and build trust. No matter what you are trying to communicate, use your knowledge of who they are to pro-actively and empathetically predict how it might impact them. Tailor the message to address the concerns that you believe they may have. It may feel awkward or even neurotic to put this much thought into your interactions with others, but it can make a world of difference. It works and it builds a stronger team. The strongest teams are made when all people put in this much effort not only to know each other, but to act on that knowledge.
- Consider the level of detail the other person needs to know. A coder talking to another coder might be able to skip the big picture and just talk through an algorithm or architectural detail. But when talking to QA, the context within your system matters more, including understanding why a feature is being coded in the first place. Your UX designer doesn’t need to know anything about the code, but does need to understand the workflow on a screen, where a user is coming from or going. Your product owner just needs to know that you all have it covered so they can focus on what comes next, and your manager needs to know when you have a problem that is blocking your work so they can help you.
- Think about your own interests. Although you want to tailor your messages to the audience, you don’t want to trivialize your own needs. Decide what you are trying to get out of a conversation, and envision the intersection of their interests and your own. I like to picture a venn diagram of our roles and interests, and keep conversations within our shared interests. This also keeps conversations focused – it makes sure that you when you do engage with your co-workers, they will feel like the conversation was worthwhile and that they helped with the work.
As a Product owner, this focus on the goal of a conversation and the shared interests of people on a call is what I use to keep a meeting focused. When talking about future features and how to implement them, we go on tangents frequently. Sometimes, that is good – it is driving us to think through details with the exact group of people who have the knowledge, and it can roll back up to a solid definition of a feature. Other times, we have too many people on the call, and we are only engaging with half the group. In those cases, it is better to pull the conversation back to the topics that interest the entire gorup, and set aside details for smaller group discussions at another time. You don’t need full resolution of every topic, in every conversation. Take a conversation as far as you can with the group at hand, and take notes of what conversation needs to happen later to finish out details. Keep conversation laser-focused on the immediate goals for the meeting.
When I do need to cut off a conversation, I say so explicitly. As mentioned before, they will almost always be thinking about how the current conversation directly impacts their life. The tangent we were just going down might be their area of expertise, and they truly want to keep getting into it. Cutting off a conversation in their area may make them feel dismissed, or leave them frustrated because we did not answer their own questions. So I make sure to always say why we are cutting off a conversation, that I am making a note to get back to it, and give an estimate of when we will get back to it.
Listening isn’t a tough skill to acquire, but it can be difficult to put into practice. Improving listening skills is often about breaking self-focused habits and establishing new habits to keep your focus on the person you are listening to.
- Just listen. Try to understand what they are saying. Forgive any quirks of their communication, stumbling over words, and just focus on the points they are trying to make.
- Don’t hijack the conversation. Many people have the habit of turning conversations back to themselves — to be sure they express their own opinions, share their experiences, and sometimes to one-up the other person. It is advisable to pay attention to your own conversation to see whether you have this habit. If you do, stop. This might take some practice. Find someone who you like well enough to be happy just listening to them… and have them tell you about things that you already know. Practice having the patience to let them talk. Remember that it is OK to just listen to someone else’s perspective even if you already know more about the topic than they do. It is also OK for someone to be wrong… you can still listen to their perspective, and correct them later.
- Ask questions. If you don’t understand what someone is trying to communicate, ask questions until you do. Once you do understand, you may disagree – but then ask more questions to be sure you understand why they came to the conclusion they did. Even in disagreement, you can learn from what other people think.
Becoming a better listener will not only broaden your own perspective, it will make people comfortable talking to you, and will earn trust and respect, which ultimately helps the entire team to work better together.
One benefit you will see from truly listening to others is that it will build your empathy – the ability to understand and share the perspective of someone other than yourself. Some people are better at this than others, but there are things you can do to improve your own talents:
- Remember that everyone has a full life story outside of your work interactions. Their stories are all different, but they make up far more of their life and their perspective than the limited time you spend interacting with them. Their life will impact their work, so one of the best way to understand how they are feeling and what is going on in their life is to ask. “How are you?” can be more than a pleasant greeting. It can be a sincere question. If someone is doing great, maybe it is a good time to work on a more difficult problem together. If they are struggling, maybe it is a better time to cut them some slack.
- Try to envision how someone’s feelings will impact any work you are doing together. If they just got back from vacation and are trying to just catch up with everything they missed, maybe it is not a good time to call the whole team together to revamp your processes. If you just got out of a retrospective meeting and found that the entire team has low morale, maybe this is not the time to ask everyone to speed up the work. And if they are feeling great, loving the work, and are inspired, maybe it is time to encourage them to take on something larger and more challenging. Maybe you should even volunteer to do some of the more boring, simplistic work to let the member of the team with the highest morale tackle the work that needs such a spirit.
The flip side of all this focus on the people you work with is to know yourself. We all have different personalities and preferences in our working environments and our communication styles. And knowing your own inclinations and preferences can help you work with others.
As an example, if you are the type of person who avoids conflict, you will not be able to engage in productive conversation with someone who uses conflict as a tool to draw out a variety of perspectives. You need to know yourself enough to recognize that you have the opposite approach to collaboration as the other person, and actively seek different ways to work with them.
Likewise, if you prefer to think through problems slowly and analytically, you need to know that you cannot commit to decisions on a phone call the first time to hear about them. You need some time to process and can give a tentative answer, but the real answer will take take.
Once you have learned more about yourself, and have a reasonable amount of knowledge to guess how you react in different situations, it is time to evaluate yourself. Are all of your actions and reaction reasonable? Which ones might not seem reasonable to people who differ from you?
Another aspect of self-knowledge is your personal values. You probably know what you care about, but it may be worth listing them out, in particular to contrast with values that may differ in a corporate environment. Not all personal values are universal. They are personal, and you will need to decide which differences are OK for healthy working relationships and which are not.
As an example of a different value that can exist in a healthy working environment is a software engineer who cares about the meaning their work has on the world vs. a sales guy who just wants to make more money. While diametrically opposed, this does not have to be a conflict because they each control the area of the business where their personal work impacts their own value. The coder can make a product that improves the world, and the sales guy can make money, and everyone gets what they want. There will still be conflict, but you can embrace the difference to resolve the conflict – draw boundaries. Talk about the differences in values, hopefully agreeing that if each person sticks to their own area, conflict is avoided.
You also do need to decide whether you can work with people who are different than you. I think most people can – but it is easier to do so deliberately, as it helps you understand where they are coming from when you are on different sides of an issue.