Your “People Problems,” and How To Solve Them

Posted by Robert Merrill on October 3, 2013 under uFunctional Values | Be the First to Comment

For all its geekiness, software is an intensely “people” business.

Ask programmers to tell horror stories and they will indeed talk about irreproducible severity-1 bugs and traffic spikes that took down their website.

But more of the horror stories have to do with the insane scheduler, the requirements yo-yo, the scope creep (it’s also a noun, you know), and the User From The Nether Regions.

Unfortunately, we who are attracted to software development in the first place have “people problems” of our own. We’re quick to “flip the bozo bit.” We get into religious wars over the One True Coding Style (or text editor—are those days passing? It’s vi, just in case you’re wondering).

Once you recognize that software is a people problem (and thought leaders in our industry have been writing about it for years), you still have a problem. Advice seems to fall into two categories:

  1. “You just have to know how to talk to them.” Understanding motives, dialogue, and all that. I posted this because of an article called How To Cope With Troublesome People on I recommend Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High because it helps us all with our inner game—how to avoid dropping into lizard-brain Fight-or-Flight and triggering a destructive feedback loop when things get tense.
  2. “When the going gets tough, get tough.” These can be helpful and constructive, like Cloud & Townsend’s Boundaries (it speaks Christian-ese at times, but you don’t have to be a Christian to use the principles and techniques). Or they can be systemic, like The No-Asshole Rule; great if you’re the CEO, but among the rest of us it encourages bozo-bit-flipping because we can’t do anything about the subject. And then there are various books about winning at office politics, which remind me that, “The Winner of The Rat Race is Still a Rat.”

I believe it’s always best to start by controlling your inner game (a learnable skill) and striving for dialogue, but I’ve also encountered people who, over time, demonstrated by their actions that they weren’t the least bit interested in me or my &%@! dialogue. What to do?

Enter Alan Godwin’s How To Solve Your People Problems, with a map of the swamp.

  1. Conflict is inevitable
  2. Conflict can be either good or bad
  3. How we engage has a significant impact on whether conflict is good or bad
  4. The rules of engagement for good conflict depend on whether the other person is exhibiting reasonable behavior or unreasonable behavior.
  5. Reasonable behavior consists of humility, knowledge, awareness, responsibility, and reliability. (Dr. Godwin explains these very clearly). To the extent these are absent, you are dealing with a person who is acting unreasonably.
  6. Start with your dialogue skills, from Crucial Conversations or similar. That’s what How To Cope With Troublesome People recommends, too. If you get a measure of reasonableness back, use your skills to stay in dialogue, even if things get tense. Meet Reasonableness with Dialogue.
  7. But if you get sustained Unreasonableness back, in the form of Drama (there are four–I won’t spoil the surprise), then switch from Dialogue to Boundaries. Meet Unreasonableness & Drama with Boundaries. In extreme cases, Boundaries may have to be in the form of Lawyers, Guns, and Money.

Dr. Godwin’s book is also from a Christian perspective, but like Boundaries, you don’t have to be Christian to apply the principles. And don’t be too quick to flip the bozo bit.

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