Communication Skills For Testers: Why it’s important

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Communication Skills For Testers: Why it's important

I recently spoke with Damian Synadinos about his presentation, Workshop: Commutication – An Exploration of Idea Transfer with Words.

In our Test Talk, Damian shared some of the many ways you can improve your communication skills and avoid the misunderstandings that may be preventing your team from creating automation awesomeness in your enterprise application development efforts.

What is Commutication?

Although Commutication looks like a misspelling, it’s actually a term Damian coined to help explain communication to the folks that attend his workshop.

As Damian explains, “Commutication…is a portamento of the word ‘commute;’ of the similar way we commute — by moving people around in vehicles, and ‘communication’ is very much the movement of ideas, sometimes using words.”

Damian created the word “Commutication” as a reminder to people that, essentially, when you communicate, you’re trying to move and transfer ideas, and that we often use words to do so.

When transferring ideas, it’s sometimes easy to focus on words only, ignoring everything else that goes into creating effective communication, including nonverbal cues.

Do You Need to be Aware of Nonverbal Communication?

Nonverbal communication — body language, facial expressions, etc. – is an extremely important form of communication. There’s a great quote by Paul Watzlawick, an Austrian therapist, psychologist and theorist, that says,

What he means by that is that once proximity and awareness between two creatures is formed, they immediately begin interpreting and sending signals.

Communication is not just verbal. It isn’t just words; messages are being sent by other channels.

There have been studies that show that body language, facial expression and even tone are far more important than the message that is being sent when communicating with someone. If you’re not able to see someone’s body language, and facial expressions, you’re actually losing out on a majority of the message that is being sent.

Being of Italian decent, I speak with my hands quite a bit, so I felt compelled to ask Damian about hand gestures and how they might impact communication.

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What about Gestures?

There are some motions and gestures that seem to be universal. For instance, across the globe, if a young child crosses the finish line in a race, they will invariably do what?

They raise their hands in victory. It’s the same across every continent and every culture. Regardless of where you grew up, human beings seem to use that same indication of victory and/or success.

There are many other gestures and cultural differences, however, that you need to be aware of.

If you happen to be dealing with someone of a different culture, or maybe even has a different first language, it might behoove you to learn a little bit more about their culture, and understand what their gestures and body language means to them, so that you might be able to better communicate with them, and better understand them.

How to Recognize Miscommunications?

Damian says that in his workshop they often discuss ways to recognize when miscommunication is happening, as well as the fact that it can sometimes be difficult to do so.

One simple way, of course is if someone actually says, “What? I don’t understand.” There are lots of other, less obvious indicators, however. Sometimes a facial expression — someone twisting their face up while you’re speaking to them, for instance — might indicate that they are confused or don’t understand. And a person’s body language — crossed arms, shrugging shoulders, or a tilted head — might indicate that the idea in your head is not quite being conveyed or transferred as well as you might hope.

What’s even more devious is when you don’t recognize that miscommunication has happened. A favorite quote of mine from George Bernard Shaw says:

Shallow Agreement

Another way in which misunderstanding can occur is with “shallow agreement,” which is when two people are using words that are packed with meaning – both believing that they are conversing and communicating – then walk away without realizing that the words they used had very different meanings to one another. How often have we as testers seen this occur after a sprint review in a “three amigos” session or during test planning.

When you’re developing software, if you think you’ve had a great meeting and walk out thinking you’re both on the same page and everyone in the meeting is in agreement, they may not be.

You have to look for some of the more subtle indicators that miscommunication is happening; again — body language, facial expression, etc. If you yourself are confused, it might behoove you to ask questions or try to seek clarity by paraphrasing, or using examples or metaphors to make sure that the idea others are trying to pass on to you is being conveyed as intended.

A Common Shared Language

Another workshop exercise Damien has found eye opening is having the attendees try developing a common shared language.

They choose a few words from their domain, and have the group try and come to a shared, common agreement about what those words mean to everyone in the room. It can be challenging because knowledge, truth and meaning exist in relation to culture, society, historical context, personal meaning and experience. Everyone has a different perspective about what words mean, and even if you try to get a small group of people to agree upon it, it can be very difficult.

Communication with BDD

If your software development and release teams use development process like BDD, it’s important to develop common shared languages in small teams, groups and across a company — but you also have to be aware that if you are able to successfully create a common language, as soon as you leave the bubble that common language goes out the window.

You may meet someone outside of that group or team, and use that same word, and because they don’t have that shared understanding they may come away with a different meaning than what you intend. It’s very difficult, and part of the purpose of the exercise is not defining a common meaning for those terms; the learning is in discovering just how difficult it is, even with just a few people and a handful of terms.

Communication Heuristics

One of the things Damian suggests to help avoid or reduce miscommunication is to simply ask if you’re confused about what someone means. Don’t assume that you know, just ask – it’s the easiest way.

Sometimes, it can be helpful to look up the etymology of a word – its history and roots. Damian has something he calls “definition dissection,” which is when you take a dictionary definition of a word and then look up each definition of the word in that definition, recursively going down deeper until you have a really robust understanding of what the original word means. It isn’t a practical method for all contexts and situations, but it can definitely give you a deeper understanding.

More practical ways might be to use synonyms or antonyms. Try to find a word that means the same thing, and ask the person, “Does this synonym mean the same thing as what you’re talking about?”

You might also point to examples, or describe things by making a more precise explanation of what they mean. You might paraphrase as well; using metaphor and analogy is a very powerful method of fostering understanding.

If you’re having trouble discerning meaning in one context, you might switch to a different context and make an analogy to see if it agrees with their intended meaning.

Sometimes people do what Damian calls a “reverse dictionary,” where they provide a meaning and see whether the person can identify the word. If several people agree on the word, they can then use it as shorthand for the longer meaning or definition.

Changing perspective is about empathy; trying to better understand a person — their views, their experience — so you can better understand what a word might mean to them.

Safety language is another heuristic Damian recommends using. Epistemic modality is a way of speaking more precisely by building doubts and caution into your language so that you can speak in a more precise way about things.

One Piece of Actionable Communication Advice

The number one piece of advice to becoming a better communicator, is to ask. It’s the simplest way, but it’s often the most difficult way for people to get clarity of an idea.

There are all kinds of social norms and cultural reasons that people may be afraid or less apt to ask a question, but it’s often the most effective way. By simply stating “I need to get more information about this,” we’re engaging in deep communication as opposed to having shallow agreements.

More Communication Skills For Testers Awesomeness

Listen to my full Test Talks interview with Damian Synadinos for more communication skills awesomeness:

Joe Colantonio: Hey, Damian! Welcome to Test Talks.

Damian Synadinos: Thanks, Joe. Glad to be here.

Joe: It’s great to have you on the show today. I heard you gave an excellent workshop at STPCON this year about Commutication, so that’s definitely one of the things I’d like us to dive into. Before we get into it, could you tell us a little more about yourself?

Damian: Yeah, absolutely! Thank you for the kind words. When I was a child, I grew up around computers. That experience eventually led to me getting a job, while I was in college, at CompuServe. For those of you old enough to remember, that was one of the primary ways of getting online, back in the early ‘90s.

Joe: (Laughing) Yep.

Damian: I was fortunate enough to be hired directly into their Quality Assurance department as a Junior Tester. They gave me a six-month co-op, and that eventually lead to a full-time job. I spent the next 23 years jumping from company to company around central Ohio, doing various software testing jobs in different roles, using a lot of different tools, and techniques and approaches and methods, and a lot of different industries. I’ve been in airline, in retail, in finance, insurance, and education; but the one common theme they all had was software testing. Eventually, that’s led to where I am now. I just started my own company, Ineffable Solutions, and I’m just doing some private consulting and training.

Joe: At a high level, what was your workshop all about? I think the title was “Commutication – An Exploration of Idea Transfer with Words”. Could you just, at a high level, give us a breakdown of what the workshop was all about?

Damian: Absolutely… Commutication…is a portamento of the Word “commute” and “communication,” and it’s supposed to serve as a reminder of the similar way we commute, by moving people around in vehicles, and communication is very much the movement of ideas, and sometimes we use words. I created the word “Commutication” as a reminder to people that, essentially, when you communicate, you’re trying to move and transfer ideas, and sometimes we use words to do that. At a high level, the way the workshop was created might help people understand the purpose of it. In my life, professionally and personally, and in other areas, I’ve experienced pain – as many of us have – and nobody likes pain. Well, some people like pain (Joint Laughter), but we’re not going to talk about those people right now. For those of us that don’t like pain, we try to avoid it. I try to avoid it by analyzing my pain and figuring out what caused the pain. I found that very often, that pain was caused, at least in part, due to poor communication. So, I set about trying to be a better communicator, learning on how to better express my ideas to others, and how to better understand others’ ideas. In the past ten years, I’ve learned a lot. This workshop is a culmination of the different things I’ve learned along the way, and they might be helpful to others, as well.
Joe: Awesome, I love this topic. This is something I’ve struggled with all my life. I’ve always been afraid to communicate, especially with people I don’t know. People may not notice this, but I’m very much an introvert. I started this podcast to help me with my communication skills.

Damian: Great!

Joe: As a tester, why do you feel it’s so important that a tester should have good communication skills?

Damian: Well, it’s interesting. This was born out of some personal pain, but as I began to analyze it, I looked at other areas of my life. I looked at my professional beliefs, my political beliefs, my religious beliefs; I looked at all areas of my life under the microscope, and I dissected them, and I realized that communication is important in all of these different areas. When I looked at my professional career, my testing career, I realized that communication is an essential part of being a tester. You’re constantly communicating information; that’s our main product, information. We’re information brokers, purveyors of information about the product, about the project, about the risks, about quality, and in order to effectively and accurately convey that information, we should be good communicators. I actually created this workshop to help people better their communication, but it is not really about testing. It could be used to help testers become better testers by improving their communication, but it’s such a general topic that it can help anyone be a better communicator, regardless of what area they’re focused on.

Joe: Your speaking voice is very awesome, it sounds like a radio voice (Damian laughs). I think I read somewhere in your bio that you were an actor; how much of this comes into play when you’re communicating? I know it sounds like a strange question, but do you recommend people look into actors or improv skills to help them with their communications?

Damian: Great question! I actually do. It’s one of the very first things that I will frequently recommend to people. Sometimes people come to me with questions, or they want my perspective, or opinion – I’m a sounding board for career advice. After I get to understand them and their problems, I sometimes suggest that they take an improvisational course – an improv comedy course, or an acting course – because, in my experience, I have ten years of professional improv experience, where I performed at comedy clubs and corporate engagements, sometimes for money, sometimes in bars. The things that I’ve learned in improv and theater, and the things that I use on stage, are very applicable to my professional career. Sometimes when people come and they’re asking about their professional questions, I find that the best answer is for them to look a little bit deeper, and look at some more fundamental underlying issues, and maybe they’re around communication. Communication skills I’ve learned in theater might be applicable to them, so I suggest that they take those types of classes, as well.

Joe: Awesome. How much does body language play into how much you communicate? The reason I ask this, is I work remotely, so when I’m on the phone, people don’t see my hands waving around, my face getting all red from passion. So when I’m live in an office with people, I’m curious to know how much body language actually may help or hinder me with my communication skills.

Damian: Very, very much. Nonverbal communication – body language, facial expression – those things are very, very important to communication. There’s a great quote I like, by Paul Watzlawick. He’s an Austrian therapist, psychologist, theorist, and he says, “One cannot not communicate.” What he means by that, is once proximity is formed, awareness between two creatures, they begin interpreting and sending signals. Communication is not just verbal, it’s not just words, messages are being sent by other channels. There’s been studies that show body language, and facial expression, and even the tone are far more important than the message that is being sent when communicating with someone. If you’re not able to see someone’s body language, if you’re unable to see their facial expressions, you’re actually losing out on a majority of the message that is being sent.

Joe: That’s a great point. I definitely agree with you. Another question I have around communication, is when you work with software and computers, you tend to work with a lot of people from different countries around the world, so you deal with different cultures. Are there any key concepts of communication that work across all cultures, or do you really need to know who your audience is, and then shift the different tactics you use, so that you may communicate your message the best way?

Damian: It’s interesting; there are some motions and gestures that seem to be universal. For instance, across the globe, if a young child crosses the finish line in a race, they will invariably do what? They raise their hands in victory! That’s across every continent, every culture – it’s a very interesting thing, that, regardless of where you grew up, that seems to be some type of indication of victory, of success. However, there are also many other gestures and cultural differences between, that you need to be aware of. If you happen to be dealing with someone that’s from a different culture, or maybe even has a different first language, it might behoove you to learn a little bit more about their culture, and understand what their gestures, what their body language means to them, so that you might be able to better communicate with them, and better understand them.

Joe: My company does Behavior Driven Development [BDD], and the reason why we did it was to red-eye test in such a way that we’re able to communicate and explain what we’re actually going to develop before we actually code it, to find bugs earlier and earlier in the development life cycle. As part of that, you need to be able to communicate, and I still find there’s a lot of misunderstandings that go on with teams. Are there any ways we can avoid misunderstandings?

Damian: One of the interesting things we talk about in the Commutication workshop is ways to recognize when miscommunicating is happening. Sometimes it can be very difficult to even recognize that miscommunicating is occurring. An easy way is if someone says, “What? I don’t understand.” (Laughs) It’s a pretty clear-cut way that someone does not understand what’s being said, what’s being conveyed. There’s other ways, though, that are indicators. Sometimes a facial expression – someone twisting their face up while you’re speaking to them might indicate that they are confused or they don’t understand. Sometimes body language – crossed arms, or shrugging shoulders, or a tilted head – might indicate that the idea in your head is not quite being conveyed or transferred to their head as well as you might hope. What’s even more devious is when you don’t recognize that miscommunication has happened. A favorite quote of mine from George Bernard Shaw says, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Another way to talk about that is the term “shallow agreement”. That is when two people are using words that are packed with meaning, and they think that they’re conversing and communicating, but they walk away without realizing that the words they used had very different meanings to one another, and they did not actually communicate. That can be troublesome. When you’re developing software, if you think you’ve had a great meeting, and you walk out thinking you’re both on the same page, everyone in the meeting is in agreement, they may not be. So you have to look for some of these more subtle indicators that miscommunication is happening; again, body language, facial expression. If you yourself are confused, it might behoove you to ask questions, or try to seek clarity by paraphrasing, or using examples or metaphors to make sure that the idea trying to be conveyed to you is being accurately conveyed as intended.

Joe: I think that one of the key takeaways from your workshop was the difficulty in creating a common language, or a shared language, that everyone understands. In BDD, that’s the essence of what you’re trying to do; you’re trying to create a domain-specific language. Why is this so difficult? Any keys to make it so that you can avoid these types of shallow understandings or communications that you might be having with your teams?

Damian: Sure. In the workshop, another exercise that we do is to try and develop a common shared language, just for a few terms and a microcosm. Just with the attendees of the workshop, we choose a few words from their domain, and we have the group try and come to a shared, common agreement about what that word means to everyone in the room, and it’s very difficult because of relativism. That knowledge, truth and, indeed, meaning, exist in relation to culture, society, historical context, personal meaning and experience, and everyone has a different perspective about what words mean, and even if you try to get a small group of people to agree upon it, it can be very difficult. It’s very important to do that, of course; if you do things like BDD, it’s very important to develop these common shared languages in small teams, groups, across a company, perhaps; but you also have to be aware that if you are able to successfully create this common language so that everyone in your team, your group, your company understands certain words mean certain things – as soon as you leave that bubble, that common language goes out the window. You may meet someone outside of that group, that team, that company, use that same word, and – because they don’t have that shared understanding, that common language – they may come away with a different meaning than what you intend. It’s very difficult, and part of the exercise is not defining a common meaning for these terms; the learning in the exercise is seeing just how difficult it is, even with just a handful of people with a handful of terms.

Joe: Awesome. Is there any books or heuristics you recommend everyone learn or dig into, to learn to communicate better?

Damian: I don’t have any books I could recommend, but as far as heuristics, again, the workshop is things that I’ve learned that have helped me become a better communicator, and they may also be helpful to others. Some things that I suggest to help avoid or reduce miscommunication is simply asking, if you are confused what someone means – don’t assume that you know, just ask – that’s the easiest way. Sometimes, if it makes sense, you can look up the etymology of the word – the history, the roots of the word. I having something I call “definition dissection,” which is where you take a lexical, a dictionary definition of a word, and you look up each definition of the word in that definition, recursively going down deeper, until you have a really robust understanding of what that original word meant. Now, those aren’t exactly practical ways for all contexts and situations, but they can give you a deeper understanding. More practical ways might be to use synonyms or antonyms. Try to find a word that means the same thing, and ask the person, “Does this synonym mean the same thing as what you’re talking about?” You might point to examples, or you might describe things by making making a more precise explanation of what they mean, you might paraphrase; using metaphor and analogy is a very powerful way. If you’re having trouble understanding meaning in one context, you might switch to a different context and make an analogy, and see if that agrees with their intended meaning. Sometimes people draw. Sometimes people do what I call a “reverse dictionary,” which is where they provide a meaning, and see if the person can identify the word, and if you can agree upon the word, then you can both use that as shorthand for the long meaning or the long definition. Changing perspective – that’s about empathy; trying to better understand a person – their views, their experience – so you can better understand what a word might mean to them. Safety language is another heuristic I use. Epistemic modality is a way of speaking more precisely by building in doubts and caution into your language, so that you can speak in a more precise way about things.

Joe: Awesome. You’d think communication would be easy, but this almost sounds like a lot of work. If you’re part of a team, it actually takes a lot of effort, I think. It makes sense, before assuming that everyone is on the same page, to take the time to dive into the communication piece, and make sure that everyone is on the same page.

Damian: I am sometimes amazed that anyone can communicate with anyone else (Both laugh). There are literally so many things that can go wrong, when trying to get this idea from my head into yours, that it’s amazing and fantastical and miraculous to me, that anyone can communicate with anyone else, with all the different things that could go haywire.

Joe: My wife is amazed I can do a podcast because she doesn’t think I communicate at all, so that’s hilarious (Both laugh). You also have spoken at a lot of conferences, you’ve done a lot of presentations; how does communication play into your presentations? Are there any keys that you like to use when you’re doing a presentation to a large crowd, that may be different than what you do in a smaller group setting?

Damian: I think in each instance, I try to improvise. I do have set slides, a message that I’m trying to convey, but I also am able to read the crowd. This again goes back to theater and improvisation, being able to read if the crowd is engaged and enjoying the show. Similarly, if I’m giving a presentation, I’m able to gauge whether the crowd is engaged and learning from the presentation. If I sense that they’re not, I may simply stop and ask why: “Are people understanding this, is it making sense? Is it valuable to you? If not, let’s shift gears; let’s find out a different direction we could go that this will be more valuable.” This is where I lean heavily on two things: my improv background, being able to change and dynamically speak to different topics, and the second part is those different topics. If they suggest a different direction that I’m unfamiliar with, I’ll first tell them I’m unfamiliar with it, but I’m not afraid to explore it with them; but I’m also very confident in the things that I know. I put a lot of time and energy and research into these things, and I’m passionate about them, so I like to talk about them. If people want to go on a sidetrack that’s interesting to the entire group, then I’m more than happy to talk about these things, because my passion will bubble over, and there’s a good chance that the conference or presentation will go in that direction; if the crowd’s onboard, then that’s the way it goes. I also see that the same kind of idea applies towards interviewing. I’ve been on both sides of the table quite often in professional interviews, and I’ve changed the way I’ve done it, through the years. In the past, I used to do a lot of preparation with scripts and set questions that I would ask, regardless of what side of the table I was on. I still do a lot of preparation, learning more about the person I’m going to speak to, but in the moment, while I’m speaking to them, I realize in some ways, I’ve been interviewing people my entire life. When I go to a party, or a function, or anytime i meet someone on the street, in a restaurant, or in a library, and I’m getting to know them, that’s a type of interview. I don’t have a script in front of me, I don’t have any set questions; I’m just improvising as I speak to this person. Then I realized that interviewing someone is even easier because I have a cheat sheet! I have their resume, or their CV, or maybe I have a LinkedIn profile. I have other things I can learn about this person before I ever get face-to-face with them. I have guidelines, too – guardrails, I guess. I’m not trying to learn everything about this person, I’m mostly trying to learn about this person within a certain context, within a certain job, or description, or position that they may be wanting to fill, or that I may be wanting to fill, so there’s boundaries. Maybe it’s interesting to learn a little bit about their personal life and their hobbies, because I think that all things are connected, but mostly I’m trying to learn about them in a professional sense. When I realized those two things, it made interviewing much, much easier for me. I have plenty of ways to prepare for the conversation, and once in it, I have a lifetime of practice – just talk to them.

Joe: That’s a great plan. I think sometimes we overcomplicate things. That is one instance I definitely agree. I usually go in with some set anchor statements that I know I’ll hit upon, but I don’t make it so much that I have it memorized, because I think sometimes if people memorize something, if they forget a little piece of it, they’ll stop, panicking, and it’ll just make the whole interview process go haywire. I think that’s great advice. I’d like to change gears just a little bit. You have at least 23 years of experience with software QA and testing, you do a lot of different things. I was just looking at your website, I’ll have this in the show notes; you offer a service called, “Talk to a Tester”. It’s a pretty cool concept; can you just tell us a little more about what the service is about?

Damian: A few months ago, I read an article by a theoretical physicist. The point of the article was not one of my takeaways, but one of the things she mentioned in it was that she was between government contracts, between projects, and she was trying to find a way to make a little side money while she was between contracts. Often times, friends and family would come and ask her with questions. “Hey, you’re a theoretical physicist – can you tell me about black holes?” Or, “I think I’ve discovered perpetual motion, let me bounce this idea off you,” and all these other ideas and questions that she was constantly fielding. She wondered if she could monetize this, and she created a website called, “Talk to a Physicist”. It was a very simple, one-page website that said, “I’m a physicist, here’s a high-level description of my experience; perhaps some of my knowledge and experience might be beneficial to you. If you think so, then maybe you’ll pay me for some time to discuss these things.” I was inspired by that, so I set up “Talk to a Tester” with the same intent. There’s a chance that some of my past experience and knowledge might be helpful to others; it’s part of the many offerings and services of my new business.

Joe: Awesome. I think that’s a great idea. I also know you’re involved in a conference called “QA or the Highway”. Could you just tell us a little more about that conference?

Damian: Sure. QA or the Highway Conference is a regional conference in Columbus, Ohio. We’re coming up on our fourth year, it’s February 7, 2017 this year. It’s a one-day conference. It was started by a guy named Joe Hours, he’s another tester here in Columbus, Ohio. He gathered a group of other testers, we formed a group called COSQAM – Central Ohio Software Quality Assurance Managers – an unwieldy name, for a group of good people. (Joe laughs) We’re all passionate about testing, and we wanted to try and find a way to bring a conference to central Ohio that was focused on software quality assurance and testing. We tried to make it affordable, because we understand that a lot of people have difficulties paying for larger, more expensive conferences, and we’re also trying to keep it to one day. We’re trying to pack in as much content into one single day as we can, because often times it’s easier to get a day off work than 2-3 days, or a week. We’re just going through the speaker submission process right now, and selecting talks for our tracks, Pretty soon, we should publicizing the schedule, our keynotes, and more information about the conference. We’re pretty excited about it.

Joe: Okay, Damian, before we go, is there one piece of actual advice you can give someone to better improve their communication efforts? Also let us know the best way to find or contact you.

Damian: Off the top of my head, the number one piece of advice to becoming a better communicator, is ask. It’s the simplest way, but, it’s often the most difficult way, for people to get clarity of an idea. There’s all kinds of social norms and cultural reasons that people may be afraid, or less apt to ask a question, but it is often the most effective way, at simply saying “I need to get more information about this idea, so I know we’re on the same page,” and we make sure that we’re doing deep, deep communication rather than having shallow agreements. As far as contacting me, my new company is Ineffable Solutions. The website is www.ineffable-solutions.com and it’s built by me, maintained by me, and it’s a work-in-progress, but you can learn a lot about me and the company, what I’m doing and who I am, by visiting that website.

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