Learning to Communicate

When you work with someone else, even someone you like, it can sometimes feel like you’re speaking two different languages. There’s a disconnect happening; you’re on separate wavelengths. You might agree on the goal you’re trying to accomplish, but be at odds on how to get there. It isn’t anyone’s fault, necessarily. You’re both skilled, hardworking people. You’re just approaching your work, and the world, from completely different mindsets. Sometimes the person you’re struggling to communicate with is your boss, compounding the problem.

You can try to hash it out as long as you like; one of you will always leave the conversation more frustrated than when it started. When that happens, you need to accept that your usual approach to conversations just isn’t going to work.

I’ve been reading about this topic a lot lately. It’s opened my eyes to how different thinking and communication styles can be from one person to the next. Frustratingly, it’s often contextual. You get along fine one day and struggle the next. You just get sidetracked, somehow.

When communication starts to break down, it’s helpful to focus on listening intently and empathizing with the other person — a skill I’m constantly working on. As I’ve been reading, I’ve learned that people primarily fall into one of two ways of approaching life & problem solving: compartmentalization or connection.

People who compartmentalize are skilled at assigning the disparate parts of their life into different mental boxes. They have one box for work, another for their relationship, and another for their hobby or side project. These folks can jump from one box to another, but they’re always occupying one box at a time. This is the style I most identify with. If you start talking to me about a project at work, my brain jumps into that box. Want to talk about something else? Give me a second, my brain has to move to that box.

The ability to compartmentalize is important for a programmer. You need to consider how different parts of your code interact, sure. But you spend a lot of time working through one component at a time. Heck, they teach it in school. I tend to jump into one box, solve any problems I find, and move on to the next. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, my ability to jump between boxes — and notice connections between them — has improved. But I’m still at my most comfortable when I can settle into one until I feel like I’m done.

On the other side of the spectrum — and it is a spectrum — there are people who primarily approach life by identifying and thinking about the connections between different issues. For these folks, life is full of connections just waiting to be explored. They see how one issue affects another. And another. And another. They’re naturally skilled multitaskers, rapidly jumping from one topic of conversation to another. They’re still solving problems, but they take a different approach. In exploring connections, they find the bigger picture.

“Compartmentalizers” feel overwhelmed, unable to jump between boxes quickly enough to keep up. “Connectors” get frustrated, unable to understand why others don’t see the connections they do. Neither style is right or wrong. Different situations call for different skill sets and approaches. You can even find one person embodying both styles, at times. I often switch from one to the other — though I struggle to do so in every aspect of my life.

Next time you’re struggling, at a fundamental level, to communicate with someone else, try to think about how their brain is working in that moment. Are they trying to focus on just one problem and solve it? Are they bounding from one thing to another, trying to grasp the bigger picture?

Thankfully, both situations can be improved with the same approach: working to understand where the other person is coming from.

If you’re working with someone who leans toward compartmentalization, take a breath and recognize their need to focus on a single topic for a while. You’re going to want to take the conversation in 100 different directions. Resist the urge. Once you’ve worked through the topic at hand, you’ll find a more receptive audience for your next thought. 

If you’re talking to someone who works by exploring connections, you might feel overwhelmed with information. That’s okay. Realize that talking through those connections is how they’re going to process their thoughts. Go along for the ride, with patience and understanding. Eventually, they’ll reach a point where things start to feel actionable.

Dealing with different personalities in the workplace — and life, really — can be challenging. But programming is a team sport, much of the time. You can certainly try to put your head in the sand and hide at your desk. But you’ll advance more quickly — and learn more — if you take the time to improve how you interact with other people.