If you use the principles of constructive communication skills outlined here, your work, social and home life can be more effective, pleasant and smooth.
Conflict and confrontation is a natural part of life, both personal and professional. As some say, ‘Discussio mater veritas est,’ translated as ‘thought thrives on conflict,’ most disagreements tend to have a nugget of truth inside with a potential for optimization and improvement. If handled constructively, disagreements can eventually bring benefit.
Regardless of your position or environment, the rules of constructive communication remain the same. Using them will help you to avoid unnecessary personal conflict and find ways to transform disagreements into improvement or growth. This is especially easy if you are open-minded and ready to accept another’s point of view, not being afraid to put aside your self-esteem.
For a tester, it’s especially important to have these skills. According to Foundations of Software Testing: ISTQB Certification, ‘…unless we also have good interpersonal and communication skills, courtesy, understanding of others and a good attitude towards our peers, colleagues, customers, managers and the rest of the team, we will fail as testers because no-one will listen to us.’
Constructive communication principles
Constructive communication is concerned with building good relationships and understanding between parties. By applying the following principles, you can also prevent miscommunication and resolve potential conflicts early on.
Discuss a problem, not a person
Instead of saying “You were not attentive enough to detect the bug,” and provoking your colleague to reply in a defensive tone, you can state: “There is a bug that wasn’t detected during the testing phase.”
Focus on the future, not the past
Focusing on the past is not constructive, as we can’t change something that has already happened. Moreover, asking people about the past makes them defensive and look for excuses. Let’s go back to the above example. We could find dozens of reasons, real or far-fetched, for why the case had happened, but this wouldn’t help us change the existing situation – the bug been missed already. The constructive question would be: “What can we do to avoid such case in future?”
When you’re running out of patience, it’s easy to generalize, using phrases like: ‘You always take their side,’ or ‘He doesn’t care about quality at all,’ Be specific and speak about the particular case. If, on the other hand, you are on the receiving end, don’t start arguing. Make an effort to find the root of the problem first then guide the conversation into a constructive territory. You need the facts, which you can get by asking questions such as: ‘What’s happened?’ and if you get a general answer, ask for clarification of what they mean.
Operate with facts, not opinions
This point is pretty similar to the last one. To be constructive, we need to use facts. A fact is a statement towards which the question: ‘How is it manifested/expressed?’ sounds inapplicable. For example, ‘The testing of this feature was screwed-up.’ is not a fact, because we don’t know how it was manifested. ‘The testing of this feature wasn’t completed in the current sprint’ – is a fact, because the question ‘How is it manifested?’ with regard to it makes no sense.
Use ‘I’ messages
Can you feel the subtle difference between: ‘You underestimate me’ and ‘I feel underestimated’? When using ‘I’ messages, we don’t blame and don’t make assumptions about our interlocutor’s attitude or feelings. We talk about ourselves, leaving the door open for a person to help us resolve the problem. Psychologists recommend to use the following way to build ‘I’ messages:
- State what you feel about the person’s behavior and its consequences
- Give concrete and tangible examples of the effects such behavior has you
- Communicate the kind of behavior you would instead prefer in the future
For example: ‘I feel disoriented, when I don’t get regular feedback for my work because I may not be able to do the necessary corrections to adjust to a changing environment, and hence not perform in the most efficient and effective way. I’d like to discuss my progress and receive feedback from my manager/ team leader at least once a week.’
As the American writer and commentator J.P. McEvoy said: ‘When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know – but if you listen, you may learn something’. Active listening is a technique initially used in psychology and psychiatry, but is now also successfully applied in conflict solving, sales, management, advocacy and many other fields. It helps to build rapport and avoid misunderstandings. Active listening includes the following techniques:
- Reflecting (restating, echoing) – Paraphrasing or repeating the words of the speaker helps demonstrate comprehension and avoids misunderstanding. It also enables the speaker to hear their own thoughts and to focus on their ideas and feelings.
- Pause – Leaving a little space for a person to add something that would not be added otherwise can bring unexpected results, especially when dealing with emotions and feelings.
- Clarification – What is not clarified usually becomes guesswork. And when people have to guess, they tend to presume the worst. Asking relevant questions shows your interest, helps to make sure you don’t miss any details, and can prevent the guesswork.
- Summarization – Summarizing the words of the opponent in listener’s own words helps to be on the same page and gives an opportunity to correct or add something if necessary.
A common goal
Applying the principles and techniques listed above requires a certain degree of self-awareness and focusing for solving the problem, not fighting the opponent. Starting a conversation when you are angry or overwhelmed and feeling strong, negative emotions will not help you to get to a solution. In this case, take a pause and come back to the conversation later. There are other ways of managing anger. Anyway, being assertive and calling emotions by their names can substantially decrease the emotional charge. For instance, you can say: ‘I feel angry’ or ‘You seem to feel upset’, admitting the emotions of both sides. Similar to conflicts, the energy of anger can be used constructively in order to transform the current state of things.
If, however, there are conflicts that have heightened emotional involvement, these may need the participation of the mediator.
Avoiding conflicts is definitely not the best strategy in most cases but managing disagreements constructively can bring benefit to all parties and the system in which the subject of disagreement lies. Principles of constructive communication are worth everyone learning to master. It may not be easy at the start, but as long as you continue to practice them, you’ll find they bring a new quality into your life and work.