And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

A resolution on communication

Talking is hard. So’s writing. Self-expression is sometimes crushingly futile when we try to reduce the mad, beautiful complexity of the human mind into the crude box we call language. Even with the best will in the world we can still mess up, “misspeak”, communicate badly.

In the spirit of “do unto others”, a vaguely new resolution of mine is to tell others when something about their communication has made things difficult, upsetting or unhelpful for me. This is, of course, purely subjective – something that hurts me may not hurt others, and doubtless most times the people in question don’t intend to cause offence. These are the people it’s worth reaching out to, then – if something I said ever hurts or demeans someone else, I’d sooner know about it than not, no matter how hard it is to hear.

With that in mind, here are a couple of recent incidents where I’ve exercised this new power.

I’m a solo developer on a team at the BBC that’s not directly connected to the rest of the organisation – we don’t sit in a regular BBC office or have daily contact with other teams. While this is hugely freeing and means we can work quickly and with minimal restrictions, there’s also the side effect that it can sometimes feel isolated and lonely. At the end of last year I went to an internal developer conference along with probably a hundred or so other BBC technical staff. I didn’t know anybody else there and travelled to a different city for the day.

Some days my introvert nature is stronger than others and that day was definitely more of a “flight” than “fight”. I listened along to the talks but didn’t really feel like striking up a conversation with the groups of folks all around me who were all existing colleagues.

During one talk, a senior architect was asking the audience whether they’d used an internal software tool his team were working on. When almost everyone raised their hand he jokingly changed the question to “okay, who’s not heard of it?”. I raised my hand – then looked back (I was sitting on the front row) to see I was the only person in the room with my hand raised.

Now, probably nobody else noticed or cared, but in my state at the time I was already fighting back feelings of imposter syndrome, “you don’t belong here”, etc. This question all but confirmed it for me: I wasn’t part of this crowd. It took most of my self control to stick around for the second half of the day after that, trying to reassure myself that the talks on programming were still relevant regardless of whether I’d heard of some internal library.

After the event I decided to email the speaker and let him know how I’d felt. I acknowledged that he’d not meant to single me out or poke fun at anyone, and that I’d done the same sort of “put your hand up if…”-style audience participation in talks I’ve given. But I wanted to share with him the realisation that I’d had at that moment: asking those kind of “survey” questions in that sort of exclusive (rather than inclusive) way is liable to isolate some of your most important audience members: the ones you haven’t encountered yet.

To his credit, he replied and agreed with my feedback and pointed out it was an off-the-cuff comment. I felt glad to have shared my feedback with him, though – if I’d given that talk and inadvertantly made someone feel out-of-place I’d prefer to know, and correct it for next time.

The second time I’ve recently given feedback was during a particularly trying exchange of emails. My team got clobbered with some red tape: essentially, we had to undertake a (second) security review of an application we were building for boring, complex process reasons. The man who instigated the review sent our team a fairly unhelpful email (with multiple senior stakeholders CC’d in) which didn’t offer us much support with fixing the problem he’d raised.

Once we’d fixed the issue, I asked a technical question and got back a fairly patronising message from him stating that it was “concerning” that I didn’t understand the issue – an issue that he’d raised. In this reply he’d again copied in some senior folks. I acknowledged my error (which it was indeed) and thanked him on the thread for pointing it out.

I then privately replied to him and pointed out that escalating the email to my boss and the way he’d spoken to me had embarassed me and, I felt, could’ve been resolved with a private message between us. I noted that I didn’t feel he’d approached us with an attitude of wanting to help us get our product live and iron out the issues, which is the policy that particular team are meant to stick to.

Again, to his credit, he replied and apologised and said he hadn’t been out to embarass me – indeed, he revealed his own frustrations that teams like mine were left without clear training on how to avoid some of these issues in the first place. I was glad I’d given him the feedback – it might assist other teams in future if they’re dealing with these situations.

I don’t want to come off here as a special snowflake who’s constantly being offended by well-meaning folks (and then griping to them over email about it). I’m in a fairly unique position at the moment where my team is isolated from the rest of the organisation – often these kind of issues would be resolved over a face-to-face chat. But I do believe that it’s valuable to give—and receive—feedback on how we talk to one another. It’s the worst feeling in the world to find out that you’ve hurt someone without meaning to – I’ve experienced this and remember how awful I felt. But as bad as you feel when you realise you’ve let yourself down, you’d feel worse if you never got a chance to correct it or make up for it.

So I challenge you: if someone you work with or see socially (or anything else) has communicated with you in a way which hurt you, annoyed you or prevented you from doing something, don’t be afraid to (productively, and politely) tell them. Do so in the spirit that you’d like to receive such feedback: from someone who believes you can (and want to) do better. And if you’re reading this and I’ve made you feel like that, I want to know about it too. Drop me a line!