Building relationships

image from http://alexsb.org/finding-common-ground/

Welcome to the second installment of my communication and team building in tech. This blog post is human interactions 101.

This blog post is human interactions 101. I’m sure you know all this already, you’ve formed relationships hundreds of times over the course of your life.

But having said that it’s good to approach this mindfully, with an eye to making it easy for both parties. If you consciously build strong trusting relationships, it’s great for your team, for your company and for your career. Teams that know each other, that trust each other, are the best performing teams.

Find common ground. This is the basis of any relationship — to relate to someone we need to have something in common with them.

I joined a very small team once, and the others had been working together, just the two of them, for a long time. They had lunch together most days, they were used to working closely as a pair. It’s an extreme example of being the third wheel at work! And of course, these two weren’t aware that it was a problem. They weren’t intentionally excluding me. There was nothing personal in their behaviour, it was routine.

I was aware I needed to ‘break in’, to get them to remember that there was another person in the squad. I tried a few things: sharing fun things in our slack channel, making jokes, stuff like that. I had my breakthrough when I noticed that one of my teammates had a picture saved to their desktop background of the golden pavilion in Kyoto, Japan. I’ve been there. I pointed to it and said “I’ve been there!” That started a conversation about how we’d both been to Japan, and loved it, and we shared a couple of travel stories.

After that conversation it was much easier to fit in. We’d got a bit of common ground and I found myself included more often, easier. I’m sure other factors were in play but that’s a active thing I did to open a dialogue.

Other, more formal ways, you can find common ground with your workmates is by having an all squad meeting. Have an inception or kick off for your squad, address teambuilding retrospective, or as it’s own meeting. These types of get togethers create space for you to work on things consciously. You can also do personality tests such as the DOPE or bird test, the 16 personalities or Meyers-Briggs, DiSC profiles, any of those things. These tests give you a framework for how to approach talking to your workmates. They also acknowledge that people are different, and you may need to change your usual habits when you speak to each other.

Less formal ways to bridge the gap is water cooler talk. There are lots of opportunities for small talk: First thing in the morning, over lunch, making coffee, waiting for a meeting to start. You can share what you did the night before, ask what movies or television your workmates enjoy, ask about their pets or their family. Obviously you don’t want to spend too long doing this, spending hours talking about non-work stuff won’t improve your reputation. Don’t discount the benefit of little chats like this either.

Sometimes creating common ground will require you to share things about your life. It might feel a little vulnerable and that’s okay. Don’t push yourself past your comfort zone and of course, keep conversation appropriate to the workplace. In my experience sharing things about myself which make me feel vulnerable encourages others to be more open in response. That builds trust, and with trust you have a strong connection that will follow through to when you’re say, deploying a piece of code together.

Also, know when to back off. Not all people want to talk about movies at work, and not all people want to have a conversation when you do. There are signs you can read when people get bored or uncomfortable. They may not meet your eyes, they may give single syllable responses, they may turn back to their computer instead of engaging with you. Pay attention to these signals and let the conversation drop.

Another thing to keep in mind is that if you’re at work with this person, you already have common ground. You’re both at work with a common goal. It could be that you’re there to earn money, it could be that you are working on the same project, it could be that you have an awesome idea that could change the world. Being a cohesive team will make that easier.

I’ll create another blog post with details of my favourite team building games. You may also like to read this article about getting to know people without awkwardness.