Confidence and Communication

I remember my first day of my internship in college. Like a lot of first days, they didn't really know what to do with me after the initial tour. The IT folk hadn't hooked me up with a computer yet, so my boss printed out this ten page PL/SQL procedure and had me read it. It was terrifyingly more complex than the database lessons I had in college, and I wondered how on earth I had managed to con my way into this job I had no right to be in.

When I left that job a year and a half later, I had worked on most of that thing, improved it a ton and knew it like the back of my hand. It was awesome.

That's where my confidence in doing development first came from. I've had a lot of advice and pep talks since then, and I've listened to a lot of people talk about how confidence is the key on getting minorities to get into and stay in programming. Having companies patiently take in people who are still learning and giving them experience they can be proud about is key to getting people in this field.

Now that I'm a bit further along though, I'm realizing that there's something else that we need to be careful of after getting people in the field. You shouldn't boost people's confidence just to beat it out of them when they're getting somewhere.

At my first job, I had a really big problem getting cut off when speaking. Being cut off is a normal part of conversation, but in development groups, it can happen so frequently that the conversation is derailed, someone else takes over, and the original speaker's point and experience on the subject can be lost. I tried to hold my own at first by cutting off people myself, or counter-cutting-off, or getting louder. The result of this was one of my first performance reviews was to watch my communication style and not do that. So, I moved to email. With email, you can completely document out a problem or reply and no one can interrupt you. My next performance review was that I was too verbose over email and no one had time to read them. I worked on having lists, bolded points, and other methods to communicate more efficiently. I still got lots of feedback that people weren't reading my emails for one reason or another.

Point being, I've tried really hard to work on a communication style that is respectful to other people's time while taking the time I deserve as a member of the team. The confidence plays into that last part. I deserve to be heard. If I need people's attention to get help or feedback, I deserve the time it takes for me to talk about my work so far. And I shouldn't have to fight to keep that from being taken away.

How do you balance being confident enough to make sure your voice is heard, while still maintaining a respectful communication style?

I've done a lot that I'm proud of, but I still don't feel very confident. I love pep talks from my peers who tell me that I'm doing a good job, because many other daily professional interactions tell me I'm not worth the time I need to get my point across and get my job done. Between constant interuptions, deflections to other people, and assumptions that I have not done due diligence investigating or attempting to solve a problem, it's hard to remember what I've accomplished.

Everyone needs to monitor their communication style constantly in a professional environment. With yourself, be sure to let people finish their thoughts. Write down things you want to add instead of cutting people off immediately. If you're in a position of leadership, pay attention to who is getting time to speak and who is not. Pay attention to what is being said, and how, and who is escalating emotions and who is reducing them. Some people don't talk a lot, and that's fine. But if someone's repeatedly being cut off by someone and then ignored, that's not fine.

At work, I get told and try to communicate respectfully, and I get told by peers outside of work to be more assertive. Unless it's unreasonable, I'm going to listen to the people who control my paycheck. If you are only telling minorities to be more assertive, you are not helping as much as you could be. The way to help is try to correct the behavior of the people who are requiring a level of assertiveness in professional conversations that can be seen as rude. Knowing the balance between assertive and rude is not obvious, not universal between people, and dependent on how confident you are.

I've had people act as though that their standard for assertiveness is the way business is run, and indicate if they tried hiring people who were less assertive, those people would hurt performance. I get that some places, like sales, you need super assertive people. But if you're only hiring uncompromisingly assertive people in your development groups, you're passing up a lot of smart, talented people who want to work at a place where they don't have to fight for respect.

I bring up minorities because we get told to change our behavior more than average, but isn't just about minorities. Not all white men are assertive people, but characteristics like race and gender influence the way people are raised and have been treated by society. A group of mostly white men shouldn't expect the minority to constantly evaluate their communication for correctness when they had little control of what is considered correct. Adapting will also help the white men who don't want to fight to be heard.

Establishing a respectful standard of communication in your office should matter just as much as providing coding opportunities to minority children. It's the same problem, just further in a career.

Lastly, if someone is insisting on communicating over email or IM, and you don't like that, ask them why instead of assuming they're doing it for anti-social or other reasons. I turned to text-based communication to be heard, and they often got long because I needed to cover everything to avoid questions like "did you think of *obvious thing*?". If you prefer to communicate verbally, you'll need to find a compromise - keeping in mind that your personal preferences should have a lower priority than someone not being heard at all. Other behaviors like credit-hogging or being overly emotional might stem from something non-obvious too. I don't think people care as much about getting credit as they care about someone else taking credit they deserve. (See more about that in this article, which I don't agree 100% with but has many good points)

Maybe when you start talking about this, you'll find out everyone involved is suffering a crisis in confidence and expressing that by being rude. If that's the case, there's a communication problem further up the chain where everyone feels as though they're on the edge of being in trouble. That's not a functional way to have a team.

Basically, listen before speaking. There's generally more going on than you think.