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Nonviolent Communication

The Antimatter Opening Question

In Clean Language, a conversation with a client often opens with the question “What would you like to have happen…?”

This has bugged me for a long time, for two reasons:

  1. Maybe the client doesn’t like for anything to happen (therefore it’s not truly a Clean question). 
  2. In the Antimatter frame, it matters little what the client might like (or want) to have happen. It matters a whole lot more what they might need to have happen.

So, I generally open with “What might you need to have happen…” (the Antimatter frame). 

As I make no pretence to use Clean Language (excepting on the rare occasion), reason 1, above, is rendered moot. And reason 2 dissolves as we expressly ask what the client might need. I’ll just point out that this is a much harder question to answer, not least because folks may be able to quickly state what they’d like, but generally have much more difficulty identifying their needs. For me, this is another point in favour of the Antimatter frame – we can directly begin to explore the question of what they might need to have happen. And for this, I generally opt for the NVC (nonviolent communication) four step approach.

– Bob

Difficult Conversations

Before this turns into a mini-series, I’d just like to add one observation to my previous two posts.

Setting aside the outcomes sought by the people that matter, outcomes related to the business and its needs, there’s the not inconsequential matter of the unexpressed outcomes sought by these folks with respect to their own personal needs. Often, these needs are not discussed, shared or even registered at a conscious level by the individuals concerned. And often, then, explicit outcomes have yet to be identified – both by them and by us.

There’s not much point addressing the needs of the organisation (see my previous post) without also attempting, at least, to address the needs of the individual people that matter. This asks of us more effort, because we’re likely to be starting “further back”, before these folks have even expressed their personal sought outcomes. And because they may be reluctant to get into these kinds of conversations, being unusual in a workplace context. And then there’s the difficulty involved in “speaking to power” or at least empathising with people in positions of power.

Examples

Some examples may help clarify this observation.

Senior managers and executives, in articulating the sought outcomes listed previously, may also want to control the solutions chosen, hence their providing solutions in the form of wants. Often there’s an underlying need to feel “in control”, driven by some need, such as their need for order, or personal safety, or kudos.

Similarly, articulating their sought outcomes may, in part, derive from their need for tangible progress, or a need to be seen as the driver of that progress.

Summary

Entering into, and sharing the exploration of these often intensely personal topics is certainly difficult. But that difficulty can ease when we have the right conditions – such as trust, friendship, skill, and safety. And without such conversations, we’re that much more likely to spend much time and effort on delivering outcomes that no one really needs, or worse – that actively work against folks’ needs.

– Bob

Further Reading

Crucial Conversations ~ Patterson & Grenny
Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most ~ Patton, Stone, Heen & Fisher
Discussing the Undiscussable ~ Bill Noonan
Feelings Inventory ~ List at the Centre For Nonviolent Communication
Needs Inventory ~ List at the Centre For Nonviolent Communication

Testbash Dublin and Organisational Psychotherapy

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m just back from presenting an interactive session on Organisational Psychotherapy at Testbash Dublin. Some folks seemed confused as to the relevance of Organisational Psychotherapy to testers and the world of testing, so I’m happy to explain the connection as I see it. (And please note that many of my previous posts on Organisational Psychotherapy may also help to illuminate this connection.)

I’ll start by riffing on something Rob Meaney said during his presentation:

“Significant quality improvements [aren’t] driven by testing. They [are] driven by building relationships and influencing the right people at the right time.” ~ @RobMeaney #TestBash

Quality (and other) improvements come from improved relationships. This has been a theme on this blog for some years now. For example see: The Power of Humane Relationships.

I asked a key (for me) question during my session (several times):

“If we accept that (as per the Marshall Model) it’s the collective mindset of the organisation that determines its relative effectiveness, how do we propose to support the organisation if and when it choses to do something about its mindset?”

Unsurprisingly perhaps, I heard no answers, excepting my own proposal for a means to that end: Organisational Psychotherapy.

I wonder how many folks involved with testing ask themselves and their peers the question “How can our organisation become more effective at testing?”. Or, using the #NoTesting frame, “How can our organisation become more effective at delivering quality products and services?”

Fellowship

Organisational Psychotherapy is not just about improving product quality, however. Through improved relationships, and a shift in how the organisation relates to its people (i.e. from Theory-X to Theory-Y), the quality of life at work also improves. Put another way, we all have more fun, more job satisfaction, and get to realise more of our potential at work. Further, for all the folks that matter, their several needs get better met. And, as a bonus for the organisation itself, it gets to see its people more productive and engaged. What’s not to like?

Incidentally

I’ve also written elsewhere about using the Antimatter Principle in practical ways during software development. For example, during development we eschew requirements gathering in favour of incrementally elaborating hypotheses about the needs of all the folks that matter, and then conducting experiments to explore those needs. I can envisage teams that still need testers adopting a needs-focused approach to driving testing. For example, putting into place various means by which to answer the question “how well does our product meet the needs of the people that matter to us?”.

Practical Applications

On a related note, some folks asked me about practical applications of Organisational Psychotherapy in their day-to-day work as testers. Here’s just a few applications which immediately come to mind:

  • Improving communication with the people that matter (i.e. developers, fellow testers, management, stakeholders, customers, etc.). I find NVC (nonviolent communication) skills and practice particularly useful in this context.
  • Clarifying what works and thus what to do more of (Cf Solutions Focus). This can improve team retrospectives.
  • Helping the people that matter (including ourselves) feel better about what we’re doing (Cf. Positive Psychology).
  • Understanding each other’s strengths, with a view to having the right people in the right seats on the bus (Cf. StrengthsFinder).
  • Eliciting requirements (if you still do that) (Cf Clean Language).
  • Building a community (such as a Testing CoP or a multi-skilled self-organising product team) (Cf Satir Family Therapy).
  • Improved cooperation with higher-ups (empathy, Transactional Analysis, etc.).
  • Dealing with blockers to changing/improving the way the work works.

Invitation

I’d love to hear if this post has helped put my recent Testbash session in context.

– Bob

Testbash Dublin

I’m just back from presenting an interactive session at Testbash Dublin. I enjoyed conversations on the topic of the session – Organisational Psychotherapy – as well as conversations around e.g. #NoTesting. Indeed, I noted a common theme running through many of the sessions from the more seasoned testers presenting: a grumbling low-key disaffection with the notion of testing as a path to quality.

No Testing

A number of folks engaged me in trying to better understand what I might mean by #NoTesting. Such conversations generally start out with “What do you mean by ‘testing’?”. My time in Dublin has allowed me to see through my discomfort in avoiding this question (yes, I generally choose to avoid it). I’m loath to get into semantic arguments from the get-go. I find they rarely lead to productive mutual exploration of such topics.

The bottom-line, is: It doesn’t matter one iota what I mean by “testing”. Whatever YOU mean by “testing”, that’s what I’m talking about when I mention #NoTesting. It’s an invitation for YOU to pause awhile to consider how life would be different if you stopped doing “testing” (whatever YOU choose to understand by that term) and did something else to address the same ends.

Ends Over Means

There’s an idea from therapy which might help you understand this perspective. In eg Nonviolent Communication (and some other therapies), human motivation is assumed to stem from attempts to get our needs met. That is, our behaviours and actions result from the strategies (means) we choose in order to meet our needs (ends). Any particular strategy affords us a limited palette of behaviours and actions. Aside: Often, we have little or no conscious awareness of either our ends or our chosen means.

“Testing” (whatever YOU choose to understand by that term) is a strategy you (or someone else) has chosen – almost always, implicitly –  for getting your or their needs met. And other folks’ needs, too, in the general case.

There are always other strategies (means, options) for meeting folks’ needs. Yet rarely do these other strategies receive any consideration. Maybe some of these other options offer a way to better meet folks’ needs. How would we ever discover that, without considering them, becoming aware of them, exploring them?

So that’s what I’m talking about with #NoTesting (amongst a raft of #No hashtags) – an invitation and reminder to actively consider whether your default means (strategy) are best serving your ends (needs), whether your first and automatic choice of strategy is the most effective way to attend to your – and other folks’ – needs.

– Bob

Do Nothing That Is Not Play

If we think about it calmly for but a moment, one logical outcome of nonviolence is folks not working for a living, but playing for a living.

Innovation

Many companies seem desperate for “innovation”. Is innovation more like to come about through folks doing what they’re told (“working”) or through playing with things, as they see fit? I posit the latter is far more likely.

And no, this is not some flight of fancy. Do we really embrace wholehearted the set of assumptions labelled by Douglas McGregor as Theory-Y?

Theory-Y assumptions are: (1) physical and mental effort are natural and most people (depending on the work environment) find work to be a source of satisfaction, (2) they generally, on their own motivation, exercise self-control, self-direction, creativity, and ingenuity in pursuit of individual and collective (company) goals, (3) they either seek responsibility or learn to accept it willingly, and that (4) their full potential is not tapped in most organisations.

Could it be that folks’ “full potential is not tapped in most organisations” because they are obliged to “work” rather than play?

Could it be that engagement (and productivity) would take an amazing leap forwards if we invited folks to “play” rather than “work”?

Could you have the courage to experiment to find out for yourself?

Or are we all so in thrall to what Walter Wink calls The Domination System that play as an alternative to work is undiscussable?

– Bob

Further Reading

Serious Play ~ Michael Schrage
The Importance of Play (A Valentine for Marshall Rosenberg, part 2) ~ John Kinyon
What If #7 – No Work ~ Think Different
The Human Side of Enterprise ~ Douglas McGregor
Theories of Motivation ~ Think Different

The Advice Process – Flaws and Fixes

“The advice process is a tool that helps decision-making via collective intelligence. Much depends on the spirit in which people approach it. When the advice process is introduced, it might be worthwhile to train colleagues not only in the mechanics but also on the mindset underlying effective use.”

We’ve been using the Advice Process for several months now. Whilst we’re still very much committed to its use, and wish to see the changes it promotes, all has not been going smoothly with its uptake.

Potential

We chose the Advice process as a means to devolving and distributing decision-making. We like its potential for quicker – and more impactful – decisions, raised levels of trust, improved communication, and higher levels of involvement and engagement. This list describes this potential, as described by its early promoter, Dennis Bakke of AES, in more detail:

  • Community: it draws people, whose advice is sought into the question at hand. They learn about the issue. The sharing of information reinforces the feeling of community. The person whose advice is sought feels honored and needed
  • Humility: asking for advice is an act of humility, which is one of the most important characteristics of a fun workplace. The act alone says, “I need you“. The decision maker and the adviser are pushed into a closer relationship. This makes it nearly impossible for the decision-maker to ignore the advice.
  • Learning: making decisions is on-the-job education. Advice comes from people who have an understanding of the situation and care about the outcome. No other form of education or training can match this real-time experience.
  • Better decisions: chances of reaching the best decision are greater than under conventional top-down approaches. The decision maker has the advantage of being closer to the issue and has to live with responsibility for the consequences of the decision. Advice provides diverse input, uncovering important issues and new perspectives.
  • Fun: the process is just plain fun for the decision-maker, because it mirrors the joy found in playing team sports. The advice process stimulates initiative and creativity, which are enhanced by the wisdom from knowledgeable people elsewhere in the organization.

Practice

In practice, we have not yet seen full realisation of this potential. Overall, we attribute this to poor implementation of the Advice Process, which we’re now intent (sic) on fixing – whilst not undermining its original intent (see above).

Flaws

Some of the implementation flaws we have experienced include:

  • Permission-seeking. Some folks have not yet overcome their established reflex of seeking permission. The Advice Process as conceived rejects permission-seeking, placing implicit responsibility for outcomes on the individual or team with the intent, not on the permission-giver. This shift (i.e. from authoritarianism to co-creation) requires a degree of courage from all parties.
  • Trust. Some advisors have found it challenging to trust the intentions or competence of those seeking advice.
  • Belief. Some with intentions have found it challenging to believe that they now have the power/authority to make key decisions.
  • Misunderstanding/clashing frames of reference. Sometimes, advice sought and then given has been received/interpreted as denial of permission.
  • Impatience. The delay between announcing intent and receiving advice has proved a source of friction, leading on occasions to proceeding without waiting to receive considered advice from advisors who may hold key pieces of the puzzle (often, these are the busiest of people).
  • Criticality. Some people have voiced concerns that key business decisions with serious negative commercial or reputational risks could proceed to action, even when some key risks go unappreciated or unaddressed (due to advice being sought from the wrong quarters, ignored, or not understood).

Fixes

We’re intending to experiment with addressing the above concerns through a couple of refinements:

  • Shared responsibility. The onus of communication will rest equally with those communicating intent and those from whom for advice is sought. Those announcing an intent are requested to actively pursue advisors to confirm their intent has been heard and understood by all the necessary parties; those from whom advice is sought are requested to respond promptly and with due consideration of the significance of their role and advice.
  • Time-outs. In those cases where someone believes there is a problem – maybe they feel the Advice Process has not been followed correctly or not used when it should have been – that someone may call a Time-out. The intention or action in question – which may already be in train – will then be suspended, pending a go-around (i.e. another taking of soundings, general proposal of intent, seeking of advice, confirmation that the intent has been understood, and consideration of advice received). Note: This does not imply that the intention itself has been denied or overruled. Rather, some party to a particular instance of the Advice Process believes the Advice Process has not been followed or used appropriately, and that the risks implicit in the intention or action are likely not being duly considered or attended-to.
  • Arbitration. We’ll see if we need to introduce some arbitration or conflict-resolution mechanism to handle repeated time-outs being called against a given intention or action, or to handle occasions where parties disagree on whether the Advice Process has indeed been followed correctly or not.

I’ll keep you posted on how our experiment is going.

– Bob

Further Reading

Decision Making ~ ReinventingOrganisations Wiki

The Advice Process – Definition and Usage Tips ~ Daniel Tenner

Advice Process for Effective Organizational Decision-Making ~ Agilitrix

How to Communicate Your Needs At Work

When people come to understand the disadvantages of ordering others about, some can over-compensate by avoiding all forms of telling. This can lead to frustration, inaction and disconnection. One of the things these awakening folks can struggle with is communicating their needs to others. Because they shy away from conflict, and don’t want to trouble or inconvenience or coerce others, they might favour avoiding expressing their own needs in case it might become a “burden”, or lead others to feel obligated or compelled to do something. So these folks find it difficult to share their personal goals and desires. Instead, they might opt for a reliance on “mind-reading,” believing their colleagues and peers should intuitively know what they need without them having to say anything.

Relying on mind-reading to get your needs fulfilled creates feelings of frustration, maybe even anger and contempt towards colleagues, feelings which will almost invariably lead to the atrophy, even deterioration, of your working relationships. To keep working relationships positive and flourishing, it’s up to you to make your needs clearly known. Nobody is in a better position to understand your needs than you are:

“You have a right to ask for the things you need in a relationship. In fact, you have a responsibility to yourself and your co-workers to be clear about your needs. You are the expert on yourself. No one else, not even your best friends, can read your mind and know what you need in the way of support, connection, time alone, order, independence, play, joy, financial security, and so on.”

So if articulating your needs isn’t something you’ve felt comfortable doing, how do you start going about it? And how do you do it in a way that doesn’t create obligations, defensiveness or anger, and offers the best chance of your colleagues being willing to listen and fulfill that need?

Script

Here’s a sample “needs script” to follow when initiating this kind of conversation. Obviously, it’s not a word-for-word script – what you say will vary greatly according to your relationships and personal situation. Instead, it offers a very simple template for communicating your needs in a healthy and productive way. However, if expressing your needs is something you really struggle with, you may actually find it helpful to write out your “script” beforehand. You don’t need to read it to your colleagues, but putting down your thoughts on paper can help you prepare. That way, in the heat of the moment, you don’t fall into old traps of passiveness or aggressiveness and can instead navigate the healthy middle path of assertiveness and clarity.

The Needs Script

Situation (specific, objective description of facts). Start off the conversation by offering a straightforward description of the situation you want to address. Leave out analysis, interpretation, and inflammatory or accusatory language – try to make it as specific, impersonal, and objective as possible.

  • Our relationship has really sucked lately. We’ve been disagreeing a lot more than usual these last few weeks.
  • Our office looks like a bomb went off. There’s a lot of stuff lying about.
  • Your spending is out of control. We’re $3000 over our budget this month.
  • I’m going crazy in at the lack of progress here. We haven’t accomplished much in two months.
  • I’m always stuck in the office and never get to meet customers or partners. I’s loosing what little touch I had with our customers’ needs.

Feelings (non-blaming “I” statements). When you tell your colleagues what you’re feeling, you need to be careful to not vent or explode in a vague, accusatory way (“I’m angry/stressed/upset and you’re to blame!”) which may feel cathartic, but isn’t actually productive. In order to keep the conversation as a problem-solving discussion rather than a heated argument, you want to accurately convey the nature, intensity, and cause of your feelings. So before you begin the conversation, you’ll want to have honed in as much as possible to the specifics of what you’ve been feeling. Once you’ve identified the broad feeling that first comes to mind (angry, upset, hurt, etc.), You might like to use a Feelings Inventory to help narrowing down its nature and focus, or use these these modifiers:

  1. Definition. First, make your broad feeling more specific by adding some synonyms. When you say angry, do you mean angry and stressed, or angry and irritated? Or are you really more confused or disappointed than mad? When you say you’re upset, are you upset and disappointed, or upset and depressed? The more specific descriptors you can use to describe how you’re feeling, the better.
  2. Intensity. Add modifiers that accurately convey the intensity of your feelings. Have you been feeling a little resentful or a lot? Slightly discouraged or majorly depressed? Be honest here.
  3. Duration. How long have you been feeling this way? Have you been stressed since your latest vacation, since your role changed, or ever since you started working here? Have you felt irritated for months, for weeks or for days?
  4. Cause and Context. You want to avoid naming your colleagues as the cause of your feelings, no matter how tempting, and even if their actions really have been the catalyst. Blame begets defensiveness, not communication. What will result is a fight that doesn’t end up addressing the real problem whatsoever. Instead, try to communicate the cause of your feelings in the form of their impersonal context, and describe your own feelings rather than those of the other person. You can accomplish this by using “I” statements rather than “you” accusations.

Request (for behavior change). Ask for a change in behavior only. This is a very important rule. Don’t expect your colleagues to change their values, attitudes, desires, motivations, or feelings. These characteristics are very hard to change. It’s like asking someone to be taller or more intelligent. People feel personally threatened if you ask them to change intangibles that are seen as part of their very nature and beyond their conscious control. For example, what does it mean to ask someone to be ‘more loving’ or ‘less critical’ or ‘neater’? These kinds of requests are heard as attacks, and little real change is likely to result.

Instead of going after someone’s “core” attributes, and having them react defensively, stick with making a request that they modify a specific, observable behavior.

  • I need a neater environment around me. Would you be willing to keep some of this stuff in the drawers and shelves?
  • I want you to be less critical of me. I would appreciate it if you didn’t make jokes about me in front of the management.
  • I need to see more action. It would mean a lot to me if we could work together on how to make things happen more quickly round here.

When you make your request, only tackle one situation and 1 or 2 observable behavior changes at a time. You don’t want to overwhelm your colleagues – they’ll likely just shut down. Pick small changes that might make them feel like, “Okay, that’s reasonable. I can do that.” See if your colleagues follow through on your requests. If they do, then bring up something else to work on down the line.

 

Other Things to Keep in Mind

Keep your tone as calm and level as possible. Don’t let anger or annoyance creep into your voice – using even a slightly heated, annoyed, accusatory, or patronizing tone can escalate things into an unproductive argument.

Pick a time when your colleagues can give you their full attention. Don’t start the conversation in the middle of a meeting or when they’re in the middle of something important. You don’t want their annoyance about the circumstances to color how they receive your request. Select a time when they’re in a good mood and ready to listen.

Start out by expressing a small need, rather than a large, contentious one, especially if your relationship has been struggling. Once you start meeting each other’s needs successfully, you’ll be in a better position to tackle more polarizing problems.

Sometimes, empathising with them and their situation may be necessary to “earn” their trust and the right to bring up your needs.

Don’t feel like having to ask for something makes it less valuable. It’s easy to fall into the trap of waiting for your colleagues to come to you and should know what you need without you having to say anything – that if they really cared about you and knew you, or weren’t so busy or engrossed, they would just naturally do it. You might then feel that a change in their behaviour is somehow less “real” or valuable because you had to ask for it. “You’re just doing it because I told you I needed it, not because you really want to.”

But people, even those in the closest of relationships, think and see the world differently. Something may seem obvious to you, but simply not occur to them – not because of some character defect or lack of interest — but because they are simply a different person with a different brain – and heart – than you. Instead of seeing their inability to anticipate your needs on their own as a flaw, accept your differences. And instead of seeing behaviour changes you directly asked for as less valuable, appreciate the way they’re willing to meet that need, even if it doesn’t come naturally. It’s just as worthy as a gesture of interest and commitment, if not more so.

Communicating needs is not a one-way street. Hopefully this is obvious, but asking someone to meet your needs is not a unilateral process. Encourage your colleagues to make their needs known as well, and do your best to listen to, understand, and try to meet those needs when you can. In a healthy relationships, all parties are eager to try to do what they can to make the other person flourish.

If you’re on the receiving end of a needs request, one of the most important things to do is to try to accept the other person’s “quirks.” You may not understand why they like things done in a certain way, or how something that can seem so trivial to you can be so important to them, but you have quirks, too, that they find equally hard to grasp. The more you can compromise and accommodate everyone’s unique, but not-so-onerous needs, even without necessarily understanding them, the happier you’ll be.

You have a right to ask, but that doesn’t mean your needs will always be met. Your colleagues have needs too, and their needs may conflict with yours. Making your needs known is not about issuing an ultimatum, but about open communication, compromise, and cooperation. Even if you don’t achieve the exact solution you had hoped for, being open about your needs will make you a happier, less angry colleague, co-worker or employee.

If your colleagues are unwilling to compromise or cooperate with you in any way, you have a choice in how to proceed. You can:

  • Try to put this one refusal in perspective with all the good things they do offer and bring to the table. Is the issue such a big deal in the big picture? If not, you express your disappointment and work to understand why you can’t meet on this issue, but ultimately accept their position. Ask if you can re-open the discussion at another time.
  • Utilise a self-care alternative. You might choose to have “self-care alternative” in mind (a Plan B) when possible in case your colleagues can’t or won’t meet your needs. While it doesn’t hurt to ask, in the end, it’s not other people who are ultimately responsible for meeting your needs.
  • If an issue is too important to you to simply accept a “No,” and/or if this refusal to meet your needs is a consistent pattern, in which you’re always being walked over while giving a lot in return, you may need to remove yourself from the situation permanently, or even end the relationship.

– Bob

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