As a developer, you need to be able to communicate effectively in many different contexts and with many different people. Parham Doustdar, Team Lead at Booking.com, has learned that having a clear strategy on how to communicate is helpful for dealing with diverse stakeholders and avoiding conflict. In this article, he shares a 3-step process that he uses with his team to improve communication between developers, team leads and product managers.
When Booking.com first started, it was almost exclusively a way to make hotel reservations. Now, it’s grown to offer many lodging types, and it operates in over 180 countries. This means that there are many development teams working on different parts of the business, with multiple stakeholders that all play a role in guiding the teams’ directions. Communication is critical for things to run smoothly.
All the different development teams are organised into ‘tracks’, each focussing on a specific part of the business, with certain communication lines between developers, team leads, and product managers (PMs): “The team leads all report to a manager of software development”, Parham explains. “We also have a product manager in our team, who reports to the general product manager. They set the vision for the track.” Parham is positioned in a way that means he needs to receive and communicate information to the various stakeholders about various things.
In other words, a lot of Parham’s job is making sure that he communicates with the right people, about the right things, in the right way. In order to communicate effectively, he adapts the way he communicates to the context, and the specific person he’s communicating with:
“Emotions always run high when people don’t understand the reason behind a question. You need to know what’s important to that person: How well can you put yourself in their shoes, and understand what’s important to them? Once you know that, you have a lot more to work with in terms of communicating the information that person actually needs.”
To equip himself and his developers to communicate well in any given situation, Parham uses a 3-step process:
- Identify: What is the reason behind this communication? Who am I talking to?
- Communicate: Do I have what I need to provide this information? How am I going to communicate it effectively?
- Negotiate: How did this person respond? What other information can I seek in order to have a more valuable ‘negotiation’, or discussion?
Below, Parham explains each step in more detail.
NOTE: In Parham’s case, these steps are what he uses to interact with devs, other team leads and PMs. However, the same principles can be applied to various configurations of people and communication types. For example, one could apply the same three steps to giving and receiving feedback. If you’ve used these principles in other kinds of communication, we’d love to hear from you in the comment section below!
Step 1: Identify
Before Parham communicates anything, he thinks about how he can take an objective standpoint in the conversation. To do this, he tries to identify two things: the context surrounding the person with whom he’s communicating, and the reason behind why they’re seeking this information.
Parham recalls a personal experience of a time when he skipped this step, and struggled to communicate effectively: “We had a change of manager, and they came in – all guns ablazing – with a brand new idea for team structure. I immediately got defensive.” Parham says that they had just recently been reshuffled and he was afraid some of his team would leave. “My first response was, ‘Why doesn’t this manager see why it’s a bad idea?’ Then, I went into explanation mode, and said to them ‘Let me tell you why your idea will not work.’” It took three months to resolve the conflict, and to find a solution that benefited everyone.
Instead of reacting emotionally, Parham says he could have taken the time to be curious about the things he didn’t know, and take that insight into the next step. In other words, understand where his blindspots are so that he can fix them: “I could have realised that what I don’t know was: Why do they think merging these two teams is going to be useful? What are they trying to accomplish here? Then, I could have taken that into step two, asked them those things, and incorporated them into my communication.”
In Parham’s experience, this first step enables him to find his blindspots, and figure out what someone cares about:
“What people want to hear in your answer is the stuff they care about. If you can embed that into your answer, it helps you a lot to gain their trust. Then, you can go into that conversation without being emotionally attached to the answers you give, because you understand why this person needs or wants it.”
These questions he asks himself helps him to respond without getting defensive. For example, the kinds of questions Parham asks himself at this step could include:
- Who is this person?
- What is the role they are trying to fulfill and excel at?
- What are they trying to accomplish?
- What might they think will happen if they don’t have this information?
- Why might this information be useful to them and the work they need to do?
- How could this information help this person do their work better?
- What do they really care about right now? What is most important to them?
- What other information do I have that could help them?
Step 2: Communicate
Be aware of your emotions.
Equipped with a better understanding of his blindposts, the context, and the person with whom he’s communicating, Parham moves into the communication step. This is divided into two simple actions: First, fix your blindspots; then, communicate using all the information you’ve gathered.
First, fix your blindspots: Before communicating his own thoughts, he fills in any gaps he still has about the person’s intentions or reasons. In other words, during the identify step, wherever Parham doesn’t know the answer to one of the above questions, he asks the person that question directly. For instance, in the example above, he would have started the conversation by asking the new manager why they want to shuffle the teams, or what was important to them about merging the teams the way they had suggested.
Then, communicate, using all the information you’ve gathered: Once Parham has all the contextual information he needs, he can comfortably and confidently communicate whatever he intended to get across. To achieve that, he speaks directly to the reason behind why the person is seeking this information.
Once Parham has communicated his part to the other person, they either accept the answer as is — in which case, you’ve settled the communication — or they don’t. This opens a discussion, and he would then move to the final step: negotiation.
Step 3: Negotiate
Be open to discussion.
Sometimes the answers you give, or the things you communicate, are not the answers that person wanted. In those cases, Parham says you move into the negotiation phase. For this to be successful, he says it’s critical to remember the intentions and the context you identified earlier, and that you don’t let your emotions take over the discussion.
In Parham’s earlier example, his manager’s reason for reshuffling the team was to stimulate new collaboration, and therefore newer and more innovative ideas. Reminding himself of that, he explains, made it easier to focus the discussion on goals, and not on feelings: “I didn’t think it was a good idea, for various reasons, but it was a lot easier to talk about this whole strategy once I knew the reason behind why he was suggesting all of that.”
In Parham’s experience, doing steps one and two thoroughly sets you up well if you go into negotiation because it gives your conversation substance. This lets you move away from discussing each other’s emotions, potentially creating unnecessary conflict - “Well, I feel X…” or “I think Y…” - and towards the reasons behind the communication - “You’ve told me that your goal is X, but this could result in Y”, or “You’ve said that X is important to you, but I don’t think this will get you there because Y.”
“They may come back with ‘I know you think it’s a bad idea but I’m going to do it anyway because of reasons X’ - but now we have something to talk about. Now we’re talking about the reason behind the suggestion that they made, instead of what I want or what they want.”
Following these three steps gives Parham the context he needs to find out what he doesn’t know, so that he can communicate in a way that addresses what someone cares about, and still leave space for valuable negotiation that is backed by reason, as opposed to emotion. He coaches his team to follow the same process, and it empowers them to communicate effectively in any situation, and with any person in the organisation.
If you have any communication tips as someone in the tech space or if you tried these steps in your own team and your own daily life, let us know about it! We always enjoy hearing your thoughts and your feedback!