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Start With Precise Communication

Published 11/7/2022

In today's episode, I provide a simple coaching tip on improved communication for software engineers. It's simple: always make precision explicit, and layer context. Start with precision, then create meaning on top.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
Welcome to Developer Tea. My name is Jonathan Cutrell. In today's episode I have a very simple point of coaching to provide to you about communication. Software engineers have an opportunity to communicate more often than we realize. This happens through code and happens in our PRs, it happens in Slack, it happens in our meetings. And communication is a broad and highly complex topic. So we're not going to cover the entire thing here today. There's entire degrees that are wrapped around this practice of communication. Communication is part art and part science. And for that reason, communication is heavily influenced by our personalities, our upbringings, our personal experiences, our views, our values. All of this can impact our communication. But here's the thing. From one person to the next, in your company, in your side project, on your open source project, from one person to another, the most difficult part of the project is almost invariably getting communication right. And so if this is a source of many problems, if it's a source of frustration, if it's a source of error, of inefficiency, then we can stand to look at our communication and start putting some new practices in place to move a little bit more towards science in the right situations. We lump everything into a single bucket when we just call it communication. But if you think about communication from the perspective of the intent, if you think about the intended outcome of a given message that you're sending, it can take away this idea that communication has to have some level of your personal flair. For just a moment, set aside the idea that communication is intertwined with your personality and instead focus only on the intention of the outcome. Now this isn't to say that every single piece of communication should be sterile or that you have to follow a perfect formula or that you can't express yourself or have personality at work, but instead you can do those things while also practicing the scientific side. The side that allows people to understand what you're actually saying. And I have a very simple adjustment for you, very simple adjustment for you. This is the coaching point for today and it's very simple. Instead of starting with vague descriptions, start with precision. Instead of starting with vague descriptions, start with precision. In other words, if you were to ask, how likely do you think it is that we can get this particular task done by Friday? Your manager has probably asked you this exact question. How likely do you think it is? Your answer may start with, well, I'm not really sure. It's probably pretty likely that we can get it done, but there might be a few difficult things along the way. We have a blocker over here or we have a, you know, still learning about this particular part of the problem, etc. Here's the issue. Your manager is asking you to predict whether or not this will actually come to pass. And when you say that it's pretty likely, I want you right now in your mind to imagine what is a real, a concrete probability that maps to pretty likely. The problem is everyone might have a slightly different answer. Pretty likely for me might mean 65 to 70 percent for you. It might mean 85 to 90 percent. And when you say pretty likely, when you assign that kind of vague probability, your manager or your coworker or someone in your company, they might hear a different probability than you intend. This is because we're looking at a vague rather than precise explanation. Precision is an important part of our communication. So when you are given an opportunity where you can be more precise, you should take it. What this means is if you have a problem with somebody's PR, instead of telling them that you have a problem in that one file, tell them the file and the line number. When you have a certain magnitude to convey, instead of saying a lot, or instead of, like we said before, saying very likely, try to assign an actual number. Now what you can do with this precision is you can then layer on what the number means, adding context on top of the precision. This is why we say that it is both art and science. You don't necessarily have to cut out all of the explanation that you otherwise would give. You could say, well, I think it's probably between 70 and 80% likely that we'll get this done. The gap, the 30 to 20% gap that I'm thinking about is coming from and you can describe the blockers or the learning that you're still doing. And the reality is this precision that you start to gain, it's a practice. This is something that you have to practice over time. Getting used to communicating with precision, this might feel a little bit weird and you might get it wrong a couple of times. You may say, well, I'm 50% sure. And in fact, you find out that you're actually 20% sure. So, communicating with precision is about figuring out what exactly is it that you're trying to communicate and is there something that is measurable? Is there something that I can point to? Something that takes out all of the ambiguity. Find a way to communicate that and then add meaning to it. So, this is a very important part of communicating with precision is that even if you do communicate with precision, sometimes that meaning, the meaning that you would have otherwise communicated, can get lost because numbers are hard to communicate with. So, recognizing that initially when you say very likely, very likely means a certain probability. But if you said 70%, the average person doesn't really know how to parse this. It's 70% likely. Well, that means seven out of 10 times it's going to happen. Well, there aren't 10 opportunities for us to find out. How do you know that it's 70%. This is a subjective probability. When you're assigning these kinds of precise numbers, it makes sense to then add context for what exactly does that number mean. What is this precise number? What is this precise communication? How can I add context so that it makes sense to both of us? We both have both the actual number, the precise definition of what I'm trying to say and the contextual definition of what I'm trying to say. The error we're correcting here is instead of starting with the contextual definition and leaving the precision implied. We don't want to imply the precision because everybody will have a slightly different version of what is precisely true. We start with what is precisely true and add the context on top of that. Now, here's the amazing thing. This is something that you can practice in a lot of different venues. This isn't just when you're talking to your manager or when you're talking to reports or when you're talking to a product manager. This is something you can do in your resume. Instead of saying, had a major impact on, explain exactly what the impact was in numbers. Again, what this precision provides you is a common understanding, a common precision with the person that you're communicating with, that you can then layer context onto the context onto the precise numbers. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Teaa. Hopefully, this is a helpful little tip, a helpful coaching point that will improve your communication, especially around situations where precision is helpful. Thanks so much for listening. If you enjoyed this episode and you'd like to hear more of Developer Tea, of course, we have a whole backlog and you can subscribe so you don't miss out on future episodes of this show. But also, we have an entire community that goes beyond just listening to Developer Tea and we support each other. We listen to each other's stories about your careers. We answer questions. We are involved with each other on a day-to-day basis at our www.Developer Teaa.com slash Discord. This is a totally free community to join and you literally have nothing to lose here. If you join the community and it's not helpful to you, you can leave the community. There's nothing lost by joining. So please head over to www.Developer Teaa.com slash Discord. You can almost guarantee that you will not regret joining that group. Thanks again for listening to today's episode and until next time, enjoy your tea.