Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Speak easy

A junior tester at work asked if I would mentor her. It's pretty exciting to be on the experienced side of a mentoring relationship and, simultaneously, terrifying that someone trusts your opinion. It was a little bizarre the first time she took notes as I was speaking...

Our session this month took an interesting turn when she asked for some tips on communicating in her team. It's her first placement in a team environment, as opposed to working as an individual or in a pair. The team she has gone in to is primarily populated with men, all of whom are significantly older than her. As a recently graduated woman, she's a little uncertain. I remember the feeling well.

As I started to suggest strategies she could use in her attempts to communicate more often and with value, I realised how many processes I have for dealing with similar situations in my own environment. Here are some of my suggestions for communicating with people who have more experience, more confidence and a louder voice.

Post It Note Questions

Someone just said something I don't understand. I don't want to interrupt them immediately to ask what it means, but I also don't want to forget to ask. What to do?

I like to write the word or phrase on a post-it note. At the conclusion of the conversation, or meeting, I approach the individual who used the term and ask them to explain it to me. I then re-frame what they said, by writing my understanding of the term on a second post-it note, and have this checked by the person who delivered the explanation. If I've got it, I stick the definition on my monitor.

I find at the start of a project, my monitor gets pretty full. Sometimes the area between my keyboard and the monitor fills up too. But after a week or two, the terms have become familiar enough that I can start to weed out post-it notes; things I now know can go in the bin.

I like this as a process for discovering what things mean, and not having to ask twice.

Stupid Questions

No one likes asking a stupid question. "There's no such thing!" you cry. Sometimes it feels like there is.

One way I give myself confidence to start asking questions, particularly in meetings with a number of people in attendance, is to monitor how many of the questions that I wanted to ask end up being raised by someone else. I note down questions as they occur to me, and then listen as the topic evolves. Any of my questions that are asked by someone else, I put a star next to.

At the end of my first meeting I attend on a project, I may have 20 questions and only two have stars. This indicates to me that the majority of my questions are learning that can happen outside of a meeting environment.

At the end of my fourth meeting, I may have 30 questions and 20 have stars. I feel this is positive feedback from the team (though they don't know they're providing it!) that I'm ready to start asking questions that will assist understanding and provoke discussion, rather than frustrate attendees and derail the agenda. Sure, I still send things off-track every now and then, but I have more confidence at this point that asking immediately is the best option.

Dealing with Dismissal

It can be easy to dismiss those who are young and new to the industry. Dismissal can also feel like the default reaction when ideas are confronting or uncomfortable for people to consider. I can get quite worked up when I feel that my voice isn't heard, but can be quite terrible at thinking on my feet under pressure. There's nothing worse than thinking of the comeback two hours later.

One strategy I use to combat dismissal is to prepare my arguments in advance. I like to float an idea to one person first, and note down their criticisms. Then I retreat to my desk and think about how I can address those criticisms, either in the initial idea or in rebuttal, and go try out my refined spiel on someone else. By the time I'm voicing an opinion in a meeting, I've run it past several individuals and prepared responses to a variety of reactions. I've got the tools to express myself confidently.

After a few iterations of this, I can start to imagine the criticisms without visiting people at their desks. The way I present my ideas become more compelling as I learn how the people in my team are most receptive to hearing ideas.

Would you have any other tips?

1 comment:

  1. Great tips K!

    I remember these feelings so well. I was the youngest member of many teams, for many years. Surrounded by 'more experienced' people with university degrees! Having left school at the end of year 10 this was quite daunting to begin with.

    "They've been doing this for years, they must be right." Was a common thing that would run through my head.

    I started small. I challenged/questioned one on one to begin with, then small groups, then superiors, then large groups, and now anyone in any setting.

    You learn pretty quickly that it's stupid to not ask stupid questions, especially as a tester. Like you said, you don't want to derail things... but if it truly is a stupid question, it should have a very simple answer and will therefore not derail (well, not as much).

    I'm glad I went through this... because now I actively seek input from younger team members, and make an effort to get them comfortable in these types of situations. I very rarely here a question and think to myself, "Wow, that was a stupid question."

    Thx for sharing.