The Art of Communication

Presented by Katie Walker at You Got This 2020: From Home

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Hey, I'm Katie, and, today I'm going to be talking about the art of communication. I don't know about you, but growing up, there was really a stereotype of what a programmer looked like and how they work, in a basement, they don't see or work with anybody.

By extension, I assumed working in tech would be similar - maybe not the whole basement atmosphere - but it would be a lonely career to be in. As I got older and went to university, these perceptions shifted a little bit. I expected that when I graduated and I got a job, I would spend most of my time coding alone, and maybe I would be in a stand-up every now and then, and I would have time to work with my team-mates if I needed help or got stuck on something.

The reality of working in tech is quite different. We are often in open-plan offices which means being sociable, working in teams. There's a lot of emphasis on team work, and it's the a very social environment.

The reality of my usual work day is more like this. I probably only spend around ten per cent of my time working alone as I'm nearly always peer-programming, chatting with stakeholders, or sharing meetings with my colleagues, and Agile ceremonies. For me, this is the norm. I also really enjoy going to meet-ups and conferences when I can. These are also really sociable, as a lot of the time events will have breaks so that you can go and network and chat with people which makes an excellent place to meet people, but it can be really challenging if you attend alone, and you struggle walking up to people and start a conversation; therefore, we spend an awful lot of time working with people in tech, so communication is a really important part of working in the industry.

Hi, I'm Katie, a junior software engineer at Capital One. I've been there about ten months, and graduated about a year ago, so I'm very knew to the tech world. I have a really mixed relationship with working in a sociable job.

I love the people I work with, but sometimes I struggle with my communication skills and that can hinder how I do my job. Sometimes, I'm surrounded by extroverted confident people which makes speaking up a the meetings quite difficult.

Sometimes, I just can't get a word in, or maybe I don't want to say anything that day, I'm in quiet mode, or I don't have anything to add to the conversation. My performance reviews so far have generally been, "You're doing great but speak up in the team a little bit more." Or, "You're good at x, y, z, but just be a bit more confident when you present your ideas". That's where today's talk stems from.

So today I will be talking about introversion versus extroversion, how your personality can affect your career and affect others around you, identifying strengths and weaknesses in your communication skills, and then, finally, how you can actually improve your communication skills. So, introversion versus extroversion: here are some definitions I found on the Oxford Dictionary website.

For the introvert, a quiet person who is more interested in their own thoughts and feelings than spending time in other people. An extrovert, a person who enjoys being with other people. These definitions are limiting to me. What happens if you're a quiet person but really love people? Where does a quiet person sit in these definitions? I don't think there are set traits to either group, and it's fair enough to identify one or the other, but maybe if you're on the middle, or don't identify with either of them. Personal will be, I work with loads of confident people who are introverts, and many extroverts. I work in a team where a lot of people identify as introverts but they vary widely in personality, and some are reserved.

So, how can these personality types affect how you work? As an extrovert, you're generally going to be a bit more sociable, maybe you're more outgoing, maybe you're more confident speaking in meetings or walking up to strangers having a chat. If this is you, you can use this confidence and experience to help others around you who are not confident in these skills.

Here are some ways you can help. Firstly, you can invite others into your spaces. A popular idea at the moment is how if you're in a big group situation, maybe you're in a circular, maybe at a conference, or you're waiting for your lunch, and you're in this group, make sure that you leave a little gap so that if someone else wants to join the conversation, they can talk into the gap and join it. If you think how difficult it can be if everyone is huddled together and there is no physical room to get that in the conversation, you're probably not going to push your way in, because if you're a bit shy, that's going to be really difficult.

Make sure you leave a gap so people can join, and once they do join, extend the gap so it has space for someone else. It's important also to give others opportunities to speak. So I think this is really important moment in video conferencing, because unlike really conversations, like group conversations in your life, usually you have one person speaking and then a few people in the background chatting to each other. You can't do this over things like Zoom or Google Hangouts because you can only hear one person at a time. It can be hard for more quieter people to speak up.

If you're more confident in this situation, maybe you're hosting a meeting, or generally a confident person. You can use breakout rooms or raise hand. Break-out rooms are really good because it's how you split down a big meeting into little groups, so it can be a lot easier for people to feel they have a voice when there's not a massive group of people to talk to.

The raised hand is like a symbolic, "I want to speak" and this can be a lot easier than, for example, if someone is chatting away and they're not not leaving any gaps, it can be quite hard to butt in and say "Hey, actually, I want to say something." And, finally, make sure you invite them into the conversation. People tend to have cues for when they want to speak. They might physically kind of sit forward in their chair, might look like they're about to speak but they're not physically speaking because they don't want to butt in. Always try to invite them in the conversation.

It's important to make sure that everyone has a voice, so shy people might not be able to make that physical, "I want to speak" kind of thing. As an introvert, you don't have to stick to the status quo if something isn't working in your work life. For example, maybe you prefer to have materials up front before a meeting, so you don't get bombarded in the meeting, and then have to make a decision up front. So if this is you, you could always get in contact with the organiser beforehand, see if you can get that material beforehand so you can have time to digest it before the meeting, instead of going through the stress of getting put on during the meeting.

I think it's important to know that also differences of personality are really good for teams. There are going to be teams when there are really loud people in a group and really quiet people and it might be hard for the quiet people to get in. However, I think if you can get past the initial tension of personality types, having a mixture is really, really great, because if you think that may be some introverts are better at digesting information long-term, so maybe they like having a good think about things, some extroverts like to be given a problem and come up with a solution really quickly, so, if you think those two people probably work really well together because the extrovert might come up with a solution quick, and the introvert can go away and think about it and find problems for the solution, and they can come back and work together.

Also, I think it's important to know that you need to be patient with people. I definitely sometimes struggle, like I've been in a conversation with lots of people, chatting loads and I want to get a word in but can't. However, I think it's important to know like I tend to be more quiet, some people are just chatty, and they can't help any more than I can help myself.

Also, helping other introverts. You know what it is like sometimes when you just can't get a word in, or you're struggling in some situations. Sometimes, you're going to be this isn't going to be you, and you're going to be feeling confident, you're with a good group of friends you know really well so you're not as shy as normal. If there is someone in the room that you can see as shy or quiet, invite them into the conversation, and make them feel how you would have liked to have felt in their situation. Next, going to look at identifying your strengths and weaknesses. I don't think this is necessarily associated with your personality type before everyone has strengths and weaknesses, communication skills, and everyone has opportunities to grow. When you're first looking at assessing yourself, it's good to get feedback.

Firstly, I like to do self-evaluation. I do this by making some lists and collecting some evidence. These may be lists of things I'm good at, things I want to be better at, and the evidence are things I've maybe remembered from the past. If I was maybe doing a presentation, like maybe a few months ago, and someone came up to me afterwards and said that was really good, I found it informative, or well spoken, that's the kind of evidence that I would put down and say that one time it was very important for that person. I think it's important to be critical when you're doing this, but also give yourself credit.

Depending on your personality type, you might be more tending towards writing a list of all the things you're really great at but glossing over things you're not so good at, or likewise you might be negative, and not write down things you're good at. Find the balance. Find things that you want to improve on but also you want to give yourself credit for things you are good at.

Finally, I like to include non-official skills. You might have overlooked things that you're good at like being compassionate object an empathic listener. It's important to include them. After that, I like to go into peer review. So you can ask your manager, colleagues, team members, friends, family - whoever - for feedback on your communication skills.

I say when you do this, make sure they're structured in the way you ask. If you go to them and say, "What am I good at?" Firstly, they will have no idea what you're talking about, but how do they start to begin what you're good at, unless you're a professional speaker, that probably isn't the first thing they're going to think of. When you ask your questions, make sure they're structured.

For example, I presented at X meeting last week. Do you think my explanation were clear and easy to follow? That way, they will know what you're talking about and able to give you good feedback. So you have to think about yourself, at you've asked your team-mates what you're good at. What are you good at? It might be good at presentations, or empathic and kind when people come to you with their problems.

All of these are important and stop you falling into imposter syndrome and other feelings of not feeling good enough to be in your job. It's worth thinking about how can I leverage these skills in my career and help others with my skills? Where can I improve my communication skills? Like programming, you can practise and improve your skills. Think about what you want to improve, and set some goals to do this.

It's important that these goals are realistic, time-bound, et cetera, because there's no point saying I want to be better at public speaking and not setting any more specific goals around that. It would be more useful for you to say I want to speak at three events by this time next year. That makes it a bit more realistic for maybe - and it's more achievable because it's not too many, not too little, et cetera, and it also maybe in a year's time, you can come back to it, tick off this goal, I did it. Or why didn't I do it? Once you've got goals, you can seek opportunities to work towards these goals.

So some opportunities are going to be coming towards you - you know, you will be maybe one of your goals would be that you want to be better at mentoring more junior developers than you, and you might one day someone sends you an email saying we've got interns coming, would you be interested in mentoring? That would be fantastic, that opportunity, because it's exactly what your goal was. Sometimes, it would be more difficult, so you have to go out and look for opportunities rather than them coming to you. For example, if you want to speak at events, you might have to look at conferences or meet-ups that is looking for speakers.

Finally, it's good to reflect on these goals. It's important to realising how far you've improved. You might shrug it off saying I'm a bit better at speaking now, but what does it help? If you go from never speaking the public going to three talks, that's amazing, and you need to take that positivity, and let it drive you forward.

So, this year here are some common struggles and areas for improvement. Building connection with others can be really, really daunting for some people, especially when you are in a work environment when there's a lot of pressure. When you're in a work environment, there's definitely a feeling that you have to get on with everyone because obviously to do your job well, you need to be friendly with everyone, but there's a lot of pressure with maybe there are people you really don't get along with, so you need to be able to work through that. It can be hard to get past the awkward small-talk phase.

All I would say is just be patient. I know I would rather skip it completely, and not have to deal with the awkward weather small talk with everyone. Realistically, that's not going to happen. You have to suffer a little bit to be friends with people. It's important to accept that you're not going to click with everyone. There are always going to be people that you just can't get really a good conversation going. I know this is applies a lot to me because I'm definitely a listener. If the other person is a listener, it can be difficult for us to have a chat. People like that I'm never going to get on with amazingly well. As long as you can get to the amicable stage of the relationships where you can at least get your work done together, that's great. As I said, some people are listeners rather than talkers. It's important sometimes to consider other things.

For example, active listening. I think active listening is a really important skill for everyone. I find it really helps me because I would really rather not be the main focal point in a conversation. I'm often quiet when I'm in a one-to-one situation or a group conversation, so I'm worried that people don't think I'm interested in the conversation, or I'm not listening, or maybe I'm just being rude. Being an active listener in these situations helps me feel involved with the conversation, and receptive to what they're saying and saying I do care when talking to them, even if I'm not saying a lot myself.

Active listening is really paying attention to what is saying and how they say it. It's having the ability to interpret the person's body language which is about developing a more accurate understanding of the speaker's message. I like this quote which is, "We may believe that we are good listeners, but listening more than waiting for your turn to interrupt." How many times has someone been talking to you and you remember a funny joke, and you're thinking so hard about how you're going to deliver this joke, when should I say it? How should I say it? By the time you've really settled or have that in were your mind, you've missed half what they've said.

It's important that you're involved with conversations all the time. So this can be through things like non-verbal involvement, for example. This is things like nodding along showing you're understanding what they're saying, and it's things like not looking off into the distance, playing on your phone, not playing with your fingers while you're listening to them. Next, I think it's good to ask questions. I think this shows that you're both interested in the conversation and you want to continue it. And then repeating in your own words what you believe the other person says are ways to show that you followed the conversation and understand what they're saying and what they mean.

As I said before, small talk is something that I struggle with a lot and I think I've been improving over the years. It happens all the time at work, and it's probably going to be something you have to deal with during your career. You're at the coffee machine, the lunch queue, before the meetings start - it's everywhere. My approach to small talk is make sure I start with a broad and not too close topic. I would love to talk sometimes about the weird TV show I watched at 3 am the night before with one of my colleagues but realistically, they're probably not going to have seen it but it's going to end the conversation quite quickly. I like to chain topics that I talk about.

Although I complain about the weather small talk a lot, I think sometimes it's a good topic to start with, because it can go from the weather was nice last weekend. I went to a burger place that was amazing, nearly as good as this other burger place, and they will chime in with, "Actually, I really like pizza," and the conversation can go from there. It's important to remember a few details about the person. Do they have children? Have they moved house? Are they into running? I think when you see people a lot, maybe you see someone every day, you're not going to have to make such an effort.

Sometimes, if you only see someone once a week, once a week at a scheduled meeting, trying to remember a few things about them can really help the next time you do bump into them. I would say sometimes bringing up hobbies, things like sports, can be a bit on the edge, because I don't know anything about running, so it's a bit risky to start a running conversation, but then I go into the active listening stage where I will start to ask them questions about their hobby, so even though I have just started a conversation about something I don't know, at least I can learn something out of it as well. I do think that practice only makes for improvement when it comes to small talk. Personally, when I'm exposed to it a lot, when I start a new job and there are lots of people to meet, that's when I got my best from small talk.

Don't worry if you're not at your top form when it comes to small talk because it can be quite hard. I think it's really important to push yourself out of your comfort zone when it comes to your communication skills, even if it is a tiny, tiny bit at a time. If you're always in your comfort zone, you might not always be growing and learning. I'm not saying go out and do a TED Talk, or mentor five interns, whether you go out, give a small presentation at work, they count to building your communication skills.

If you feel up for it, public speaking can be a really rewarding way of building your confidence, even if right now you think it's the scariest thing ever. Start really small. Things like a meet-up, lightning talks are really great. Meet-ups are great because they're often looking for beginner speakers. They're not as daunting as a massive conference, for example. You can attend them beforehand making sure you feel safe in the environment.

Lightning talks are great because they are short, so you don't have to prepare an hour-long lecture to go and give your first talk. I would recommend talking about topics you're passionate about. It's really hard, I found, to do really technical talks, but I only learned the content recently. Whereas if you talk about a topic you know loads about, if you go blank on the day talking about it, at least then you have a bit of a natural ability to have a chat about it, rather than forgetting this really complex equation you had to write while writing this piece of code.

A lot of conferences have first-time speaker schemes, so this is really great for signalling to you as a beginner speaker that they are looking for speakers of all experience. I think sometimes at a conference, they're all like CEOs, and all TED speakers, and I know they're not looking for someone my experience level. It shows to you that you can do it, and it lets you know there will be a lot of support available so you won't be on your own peeping the preparing the talk.

Remember every speaker has anxiety. There are times when I watch a confident speaker and I think that's amazing, they didn't look anxious at all, and you talk to them afterwards and they say, "I was really bricking it." Realistically, everyone feels anxiety - I'm sure someone doesn't! - but most people feel anxiety when giving public talks. It's normal to feel apprehensive about it.

I think mentorship and teaching is a fantastic thing to dip your toes into. It's great for technical learning, a lot of things you don't realise how well, or not so well you don't realise until you teach it to someone else. The more you do it, the easier it will get and the more confident it will become. Think about how many things you've learned over the years. Some must have been really complicated and probably took you a long time to learn. If you could go out and teach someone in an hour, and they understood it, that would be amazing, and probably save them a lot of time. So it's a really great thing to get involved with.

To conclude: celebrate your strengths, and make sure you elevate others with them if you can. You can identify weaknesses, and speak opportunities in these areas. If you're always in your comfort zone, you might not be growing and learning. Finally, you belong in tech if you're introverted or extroverted. You don't have to be out there leading every meeting and excelling in every conversation and presentation to succeed in your career, so don't be too hard on yourself.

Equally, there's nothing good about being a so-called ten-times engineer that is amazing with coding but can't communicate or work with anybody. It's really important to strike a balance. I've still got a really long way to go in my communication skills, but I hope what I've spoken about today helps someone else. Thank you very much.

About the talk

The stereotype of software developers working alone in a basement is far from the reality of open-plan offices and collaborating frequently with colleagues on projects. Therefore, good communication skills are a necessity, and you're not alone if you struggle with some aspect of this. For many people, everyday occurrences such as small talk and making friends can be a daunting and anxious experience.

Fortunately, just like learning to code, communication skills can be improved with time and some guidance. In this talk, I will be discussing principles to follow for strengthening work communication skills and to help with building meaningful relationships while becoming a more approachable, friendly person.

About Katie Walker

Katie is a software engineer at Capital One and organiser of the NottsJS meetup.

Photo of Katie Walker

Katie Walker


You Got This is a network of community conferences focused on core, non-technical skills coordinated by Kevin Lewis.