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The power of ‘what?’ for Agile teams

Blog Difficult Conversations1

Earlier this year I went to hear Sheila Heen (Harvard Negotiation Project) give a talk about how to have a difficult conversation. It might seem like a surprising choice for a software engineer more used to solving problems with code than words.

But an important part of creating great software is listening to what our clients’ want and helping them figure out what they need. And sometimes that means being able to speak up, challenge assumptions and suggest a better way of doing things.

Fluenteers regularly work out of client’s offices alongside their in-house developers so maintaining open and honest lines of communication is vital to delivering a great end product - together.

According to Heen, so much of what we perceive as ‘difficult’ is actually our critical internal voice anticipating a hostile or negative exchange. So, the key to navigating a difficult conversation is to change the story and move the focus away from combative ‘who’ or ‘whys' to more exploratory ‘whats.’

For example:

At Fluent we work in Agile teams and this technique can be really helpful in retrospectives when we come to talking about the things that haven’t worked so well.

We’ve all had sprints where, for one reason or another, some things haven't gone smoothly.
So if you turn up to a meeting feeling despondent about your lack of progress, all it needs is for someone to say, “Feature X has taken longer than we thought’ for your internal voice to interpret this as "I can't believe you screwed up feature X, you’re a terrible developer!”

We’ve all let our feelings colour how we read a situation. But learning to recognise and reframe these negative voices in favour of a more productive line of questioning is a really valuable skill for Agile team members.

For example, asking the question ‘What were the stumbling blocks to getting feature X over the line?’ keeps the focus on the thing you’re building, rather than the people building it.

‘What’ is a great enabling word.

It invites dialogue, seeks input and deals in facts. So next time a conversation appears to be entering ‘difficult’ who or why territory, try moving things forward with the power of a ‘what' instead.

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