I am part of a group of game masters who run events at conventions. At one of the large game conventions, our group is allowed to break the rules somewhat. Typically all board games go in area A, all role-playing games in area B and so on. Since we have a large group that runs a variety of events and we run them back to back, we are allowed to have our own space and run all of our events there.
In the last couple of years one of our group has taken over as liaison between us and the convention. He has been doing an incredible job, our relationship with the convention has improved tremendously. A big reason for this is he understands the importance of tone.
Example the first:
The Boss asks for a task breakdown for a project that is not yet well defined.
I can’t get you that. That project is not fleshed out!
I can’t get you that, because the project is not defined well enough yet. But, I can give you a high level idea of what broad-stroke things we will likely need to do. It won’t be at a level where people can start working on it, but might be helpful for planning.
See the difference? In both responses we are saying that we are unable to provide “The Boss” with what he/she is asking, but, in the response B, we are offering an alternative. That little act shows that we are hearing the need and are willing to work with the other person.
Example the second:
The product owner suggests an enhancement and you see some problems that you will face down the road if you follow the path laid out.
If we do that, then we will have to deal with issues A, B & C.
If I understand correctly, we want to add this enhancement to allow customers to do x which they currently are doing manually. With the current proposal, we may run into some issues. Do you mind if I do a little research to see if there are alternative solutions that will allow us to achieve the same goal?
Again, in our second example, we are stating that there are issues with the current proposal, but we are offering to work with the other person to make sure their goals are met.
That was easy
Not so fast! My contrived examples make it seem very easy, but in reality we need to check ourselves when we are in a conversation. Emotions often get in the way and lead us to answer with response A. We may very well want to help the other individual, but we are not expressing it to them, and they cannot read our minds.
The second example is especially problematic for software engineers used to working and speaking with other software engineers. I know this is an issue I deal with. I am used to pointing out issues we will face and having the rest of the team jump in with ideas to address the issues. So much so, that I expect this same behavior no matter who I am speaking with.
We aren’t always going to have an alternate approach to suggest right then, but I think it is fair to ask for some time to do some research.
Where do I go from here?
Tone is important in all of our interactions, not just at work. It takes a lot of self-awareness to notice when we are coming off with a negative tone. But, with practice you can improve your communication skills, and come off as a winner instead of a whiner.