Andrei Rusu

@andrei.rusu

On Improving Communication Inside a Dev Team

I have been working as a front-end engineer for about 15 years. I have started as a junior PHP developer in my university town of Iași in Romania, and gradually moved further away from home afterwards. Throughout the years I have worked for companies in Bucharest, Nicosia, Amsterdam and, for the past five years, in Oslo.

While in the different jobs I noticed one particular aspect of the job has been more or less consistent — disagreements between developers within the same team. As a developer it’s probably quite easy to get into an argument with another team mate. And during the disagreement, all parties involved are very convinced that they are right. They all think that their solution is the best one for everyone involved and they will insist on convincing you. Usually a compromise will be reached, but everyone will still believe that their solution was the correct one, even if it wasn’t selected by the majority.

But no matter the outcome of the disagreement, the important thing is in my experience how the entire process of settling the dispute is handled by all parties involved. Most of the times, the parties will prefer to keep things between themselves and not involve external mediators, which is of course the ideal situation. When a mediator does intervene, they will only do so in order to make a decision, but the tension in the team will most likely remain.

The team members need to be able to resolve disputes in a civilized and friendly tone as possible, regardless if they feel friendly towards each other or not. This will not only have a positive impact for the rest of the team and organisation, but also for their own morale as employees and members of the team. Throughout the years, and also having participated in a few communication training programs, I have built a small set of techniques, in order to try and have a smooth communication with the other team members. Most of them will sound as common-sense stuff, but here goes:

1. Avoid: “I want”

I hear this a lot from other people in the team — “I want to have this or that because…”. And they might give a good reason or explanation, but the problem here is that they put the emphasis on what they want and this might make other people feel uncomfortable.

The important thing to remember is, in my opinion, that even if it’s a one person team, in most cases is not about what they want. It is about what is good for the team and the organisation. That does not mean that what the team members want is not important, but when someone says “I want” the other person doesn’t usually hear collaboration.

Try this instead:

“I think we should do it this way, because…” or “I am confident that this is the way to go forward…” and so on…
Photo by Kai Brame on Unsplash

2. Avoid: “You’re wrong”

This is maybe even more important one to avoid as it is more effective at damaging your relationship with your colleagues. Or with anyone for that matter.

So this must be avoided at all costs. There is no place for it in a team who has respect as one of its core values. Of course, people are sometimes (oftentimes?) wrong. And if you need to communicate that to them you should do so by using empathy and respect.

Try this instead:

“I’m not sure about that, because…” or “I’m not convinced that’s the best way”.

Sometimes you may require something stronger, but still respectful and not harmful, although it shouldn’t be used lightly: “I disagree”. And there are variations, depending of the intended tone and nature: “I respectfully disagree” or “I strongly disagree”.

3. Avoid criticizing the work of your team mates

There’s a myth existing for a while in development teams, which goes a bit like “you are not your code”. That is presumably meant to say that you shouldn’t feel too bad when things go wrong as a result of your code changes. But sometimes it is also used as a platform for offering criticism.

Personally, I never found expressions like “constructive criticism” to be useful. In my view, “constructive criticism” is an oxymoron — you can’t be constructive if what you’re doing is criticizing someone’s work (or someone).

Instead of offering criticism, we should be offering improvements.

Try this instead:

“I think we can improve this by doing this or that…” or “I believe this might not work in some/all cases. Here’s why…”
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

4. Dealing with unpleasant situations

Sometimes you may find yourself in an unpleasant situation and usually the best way is to deal with it is to confront your co-worker, if the situation allows, at least as a first step. They might not have meant any harm or they might not realize that their behaviour or remarks were harmful or distasteful.

I have attended a communication seminar some time ago when I was working in Amsterdam. I didn’t care too much of it, but the main takeway was quite good advice. They suggested your response when someone did or said something that bothered you in some way should be summarized in three main points:

  1. start by saying what happened, from an objective point of view — or what your impression is;
  2. state how it made you feel — this doesn’t need to show any personal emotions necessarily, it can be something like disappointed or confused;
  3. state what you would wish it would happen next — offer some kind of solution to remedy the problem.

Here’s an example where one colleague tells you to stop complaining and get on with your work, for instance. You might feel a little put off but hearing that you are complaining, when what you were trying to do was highlight a problem that was bothering you. So one response could be:

“I see you’re saying that I’m complaining. That is something I normally try to avoid so I’m a bit disappointed by hearing this. I still think it’s important that we address this issue and try and find a solution because it is bothering me.”

Personally, I don’t always feel that confrontational. I wish I would be, but in situations where I think I should have said something and didn’t, I always have the option to send them an email. In it I can be as detailed as I want and I can express my opinion uninterrupted and concisely as I see fit.

Sending an email might not sound like the most courageous strategy, but it is of course what Franz Kafka did as well when he attempted to confront his absolutely unimpressive father by sending him the famous letter.

5. Don’t hold grudges

This is always great advice, regardless of the situation. And it seems that actor, author and podcaster Russel Brand also has the same advice, and he probably will be more convincing.

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