Learning to Shut Up

You know, sometimes the hardest part of working with a team is learning to shut up. During the honeymoon phase of a project (forming), it’s easy to deal with the team with a reasonable sense of detachment. If they make a decision that you find questionable, it’s no big deal. When the team steps on that garden rake, Whammo! “Hey, I bet that really smarts!” You just shrug it off and move on.

Here are some real life “rakes”:

  • Maybe we should try CI?
  • What if we documented the architecture first?
  • How about we stick with the simple solution rather than the absurdly complex one?
  • Perhaps we should commit to less work this sprint?

The hard part is when you watch the team insist on performing the same failing maneuver for the 10th time. You’ve gently suggested that maybe they should watch out for that rake…and your words seem to fall on deaf ears! You beg, you plead, and here they go again! That’s when I’m most likely to completely lose it. My face turns red, I sprout horns, a tail, a forked tongue and I’m likely to “Lay down the law” We’re going to do it my way now – you boneheads!

I haven’t read “How to Win Friends and Influence People” but based on my own experience, I’m guessing that this technique is definitely NOT in that book. Here’s what I’ve been trying lately: shutting up. It’s kind of a matter of timing. I watch closely, and thwack! They do it again. I don’t say a word. So I watch a little more closely, and thwack! they do it again (Hey! This is kinda funny!). Once more, not a word. So now that I have the timing down, I wait for that next resounding thwack! Then, I’m there with the arm over their collective shoulders and a metaphorical icepack in the other hand. “I wonder how that rake got there?” I ask. “Geez, I bet that hurt!”

Somehow, the words are better received if I manage to keep my mouth shut and postpone my suggestions. I seem to get more value out of biting my tongue and keeping mum. Observing rather than proscribing. When I catch myself escalating toward a blowout – that’s when I need the most intense focus. It’s hard. There I am in the back of the room twitching like someone with Tourette’s syndrome. Talking to myself in the hallways. Arguing with my coffee mug. Banging my forehead on the filing cabinet. It ain’t pretty. I don’t always succeed at holding it all in. But, more often than not, the team is much more receptive if I have quietly observed and allowed them to have their own experiences.

And so what if they think I’m weird?

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