Testers’ Communication Revisited – Part 2: Context


In this post I continue my series following on from a recent Dilbert storyline (http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2010-06-23/ and http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2010-06-24/) which got me thinking again about communication in the workplace.

In the previous post (http://pedantictester.wordpress.com/2010/06/26/testers-communication-revisited/) I talked about the Purpose and Audience for our communications; in this instalment I discuss the third aspect: Context and how it relates to our job as testers.

The context in which we communicate – and that in which our message is received – is vital to reduce the risk of misunderstanding.

I believe we need to consider the following about the context of our communications:

  • Environment
  • Availability of resources
  • Timing

Environment

We are living in a world where we are increasingly expected to be available constantly.  This can lead to many problems.

The advent of the mobile phone and Blackberry devices means that we are increasingly likely to be communicating when we are on the move – when we cannot fully concentrate on the conversation.  Our judgement may be clouded subconsciously by the fact that we have only a few minutes to make a connection (for example), we might suffer the effects of a poor quality connection to the mobile phone network and lose the odd word here and there.

We need to be aware of our hearers being in situations where their concentration may not be fully on the conversation with us.  It might be a good idea to arrange to call back at a more convenient time if the matter is of critical importance.  We need to be aware ourselves when we are in situations where our judgement may be impaired.  It’s great that we can be available for work when we are on the train but is the train really the best place to work?

For some people, it is easier to concentrate when there is a bit of music on in the background but for others this would be a distraction.  We need to work out the most effective environment for ourselves and those with whom we are communicating.

Availability of Resources

We often see conversations around the coffee machine on Dilbert strips.  I love the fact that Wally is asked about revised budget estimates when he is at the coffee machine: it is a place where he is unlikely to be able to produce the figures, he is likely to forget all about them by the time he gets back to his desk and the enquirer is left none-the-wiser.

It astonishes me how distracting the simple act of rifling through a stack of papers or finding a pen is.  It is really easy to lose the train of one’s thoughts simply because everything needed for the conversation to go well is not to hand.

Similarly a great deal of time can be wasted in meetings by not having all the information needed to make a decision.  How well do we, as testers, prepare for meetings?  Do we make sure we have read and understood any documents that are up for discussion?  We will gain respect and a reputation for thoroughness if we arrive at a meeting able to contribute intelligently to the conversation.

Timing

Sometimes it really is neither the time nor the place to have a particular conversation.  If either or both parties are stressed or they are having a bad day things can be said – or written – which do not convey the right message.  Fortunately with e-mail and written communication we can re-read before sending the message but are we sensitive enough to know that we may be writing something we later regret?  Do we recognise how our listeners/readers might receive and interpret our message?  The luxury of stopping and thinking is not necessarily there for us once we start speaking our mind though!

Another issue is recognising when it is appropriate to raise an issue.  It might be that a decision has been made that unless there is a defect which stops the product from working at all, we will be shipping the next day.  Once this is known it is questionable whether a big issue should be made of what will be perceived as less significant problems.  It might be better to raise them as issues in the bug tracker with enough notes to enable suitable prioritisation to take place later.

In future posts I will discuss other aspects of communication but I hope this has whetted your appetite for looking into this fascinating area a bit more.

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2 Responses to “Testers’ Communication Revisited – Part 2: Context”

  1. James Christie Says:

    “a great deal of time can be wasted in meetings by not having all the information needed to make a decision. How well do we, as testers, prepare for meetings? Do we make sure we have read and understood any documents that are up for discussion?”

    Quite. I’m sure we’re all guilty of it. There is a meeting in our diary and preparation consists of frantically trying to print and pull together the documents for it in the few minutes before the meeting starts. We then turn up at the meeting to confront the optimistic poor soul who was hoping for intelligent comment on the proposal from people who’d thought it through.

    Worst are the meetings where some people are dialling in.

    “What are your thoughts about that Jack?”

    “Er, James, could you run it by me again James?”

    We all know Jack has been getting on with something else at the other end of line, but we put up with it because we know we’re no better. It’s just what people do.

    Poor communication, and time-wasting, inefficient meetings create a vicious circle of declining quality and expectations. We just accept it and try to get on with the real work. The communications and meetings then become worse because they’re a distraction rather than a means of getting the project home, so people give them even less attention.

    • Stephen Hill Says:

      Agreed. It is very easy to end up with poor communication – inadvertantly some times – and yet the essence of getting one’s message across is rooted in common sense.

      One of my aims with this series is remind myself – and others – of some of the pitfalls there are. As you say we are all guilty of it at some point but by being alert to what is going on around us when we are speaking/writing to people we might be able to avoid the vicious circle where the situation gets worse and worse and eventually people stop talking altogether.

      Thanks for commenting.

      Stephen

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