It looks like I've linked you here myself. Linking people to a blogpost I wrote is often a bit
akward, especially at work.
I likely shared this blog in an attempt to further a conversation. Usually the post does a better
job at succinctly sharing information
than I could by talking.
In any case, I hope me sharing this post doesn't come across as
really the opposite of what I'm trying to achieve.
Thanks for reading!
7 min read
How to pick them carefully
I’m naturally a talker, always ready to share stories or an opinion. While I’m aspiring to gain more of the humility and thoughtfulness that I admire in good listeners, there’s a few insights about using language effectively that have made me a better communicator already.
Resilient Management is a great book for both new and more experienced people managers in tech. It’s short and reads easily. Amygdala hijacking is introduced in Chapter 1.
Picking the right words
Word choice is so important. Picking the right word can quickly and accurately convey meaning, especially when jargon is involved.
Yet, I’ve found that not picking the best possible word immediately isn’t so much a problem: we get to use more words to further explain ourselves.
Picking the wrong word(s) however, often has much more impact as it can derail an entire conversation.
While most of us know this intuitively, for me this insight has become much more explicit since learning about Amygdala Hijacking. I first encountered this term in Lara Hogan’s excellent book Resilient management.
Amygdala hijack - a threat response to an emotional stimulus.
Wikipedia describes Amygdala Hijacking as “an emotional response that is immediate,
overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat.”
I’ve found that such a response often occurs when dealing with:
Bad news or major changes: because there’s an evolutionary benefit for the body to go into a fight-or-flight response when there is a major change in our environment.
Unnuanced feedback: because when someone’s too direct or blunt, they tend to present an unbalanced view of things. When on the receiving end, this triggers the “fight” (i.e. defend yourself) mode in most of us.
Moral/Value/Culture clash: because when there’s a clash on our core beliefs, our initial response is often to take that very personally and make black-and-white judgements about “the others”.
In my experience, once you’ve triggered the AmygdalaHijack response in someone, there’s usually no recovering from that during the same interaction.
Getting practical: being mindful about language
In order to avoid Amygdala Hijacking, here’s some things I try to practice:
ROI: Not meaning Return On Investment, but rather Relationships Over Issues (yes, that wordplay is intentional). Too often, we get caught up and argue over relatively small issues, in some cases even hurting a good relationship over a triviality. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment - this happens to me all the time. There are exceptions of course: stay authentic, you don’t need to renounce your core values or beliefs to please someone else.
Cultural Awareness: Culture plays such a big factor in (mis)communication. I was lucky to learn about Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory while still in school and have thought about it a lot since then. While the Hofstede model might come across a bit academic at first, I’ve still found it to make a good framework for further thinking and conversation.
On the Hofstede Insights website, you can compare cultures by 6 different “cultural dimensions” - fascinating stuff.
Avoiding racial terminology: For example: “Master and slave architecture”, “Master branch”, “whitelist and blacklist”. Often these terms are so engrained in us that we don’t see the harm in using them because in our heads these words are completely decoupled from race and have gotten a different meaning. Yet, there’s no denying the horrible socio-historical background of these words. There’s almost no effort in avoiding these words, yet doing so acknowledges the grave wrong doings of the past and shows willingness to work on a better future. Little effort for us, big deal for others.
Avoiding sexism: For example mansplaining things, defaulting to male names or pronouns in examples, or even using “guys” to address a mixed crowd. This requires constant awareness for men, because even with the best of intentions and widest of exposure, some things are so spoon-fed to men by media and society that we don’t even realize that they’re hurtful and reinforcing gender inequality.
Piecemeal feedback: Don’t wait to deliver feedback until there’s a whole laundry list. Rather, deliver feedback in smaller chunks and close to when the situation occurred. This is difficult, because we tend to think it’s a good idea to determine whether there’s pattern before going through the delicate exercise that is feedback delivery. After all, we all have bad days and make one-off mistakes. The problem with this is that it easily becomes an excuse to let feedback pile up until it becomes a real issue. Don’t let that happen by delivering constructive feedback early on and building relationships in which two-way feedback is normal and not a taboo.
Taking an others-first approach: To quote from Resilient Management:
If [someone] is open about a tough piece of news, please do not respond in a way that requires them to reassure you. Sentiments like “It makes me feel sick to my stomach hearing what happened to you” or “I’m so sad that you’re having to go through this” refocus the sympathy on you, inappropriately.
In the same category:
A manager speaking about “My Team” vs. “Our Team” (You don’t own the team, you just have the privilege of leading it)
Saying “You misunderstood” vs “I expressed myself poorly” (Put the onus of misunderstanding on yourself, even if not true)
To clarify: there is nothing inherently wrong with saying these things, I’ve just found more success with the latter. This is hard because it often means putting your ego aside or taking blame for something you had no part in.
The right amount of swearing: It’s ok to swear occasionally: it makes you authentic. Very few people actually still get offended when you use the word Fuck. I like the word shitshow. However, it’s important that you use it sparingly and only in small groups you have a prior relationship with. Critically important: swear at situations, never at people. Use it to emphasize feelings (”you’re right, that process is a shitshow”), not to fingerpoint or deal with situations where you don’t feel in control. Some believe swearing in the right context might not only be authentic, it might even be beneficial.
Specific personal pet peeves: These words tend to trigger me
“Resources” vs. “People/humans/engineers”: Don’t talk about people as if they’re numbers or expendable, just call them what they are.
“Sure”: I often find there to be a passive-aggressive undertone when someone replies “sure” to a request or question, without additional words. I think this might be my own cultural bias.
I want to emphasize that none of these are hard truths, the balancing act here is to stay authentic. Putting too much emphasis on these things can also make us become “corporate”, “politically correct” and ultimately unauthentic - even though it’s not always meant that way. Finding this balance is really difficult: being mindful is the key thought here.
And if at first you don’t succeed: try again. This stuff is difficult, even the best communicators slip up. So let’s not spend too much time overthinking and let’s not be too hard on ourselves, life has plenty of challenges already!