Don't Take It Personally - Round One

After a multi-month hiatus from posting I am finally back with some very exciting things to share. After my last blog post, "It's Not Personal", I had an idea. I attended my first ever conference, Targeting Quality, in September of last year (September, 2017). I LOVED it. I attended talks that taught me about new skills, new ideas, and a lot about myself. I decided I wanted to try and go to more... which is when my mentor, and great friend, told me that the best way to go to conferences was to speak at them. So, after writing my last blog post and realising how passionate I was on the topic, how much I had learned on the topic already, and how much others could likely benefit from my experiences I decided to write a proposal. This is where I remind everyone that I am by no means an expert at this. It is just something I am passionate about and have spent a great deal of time researching and working on.

Now, I won't go into all of the details of the experience of applying for my first conference was in this post (stay tuned though because it will be coming!) but what you need to know is that the first place I applied to was CAST 2018. I was incredibly fortunate to be chosen to do a 40 minute session with a 20 minute Q&A after wards. So, after many months and many iterations of the presentation itself, last week I finally got to present Don't Take It Personally (feel free to follow the link to the slides of the presentation, I make no guarantees that the speaker notes are 100% word for word what I say in a presentation!).

To start, the talk went way better than I could have ever hoped. I expected a few attendees and moderate engagement/participation. What I got was a great turn out for the conference size, engaged attendees (just wait until you hear some of their questions!), and fantastic participation. 

And now for a quick recap of the presentation, from my point of view!

I struggled and rushed through the first two slides. Badly. Fortunately, no one noticed this but myself (or they were too kind to say anything). But I am taking this as a great lesson for the next time I present. This also lead to me somehow almost missing one of the key things I wanted people to realise, it is important to realise if you are making it personal with someone. I want attendees to be thinking throughout the talk about the techniques I discuss so they can be more cognisant of when they themselves use them with other people. It's important to be self aware and think about whether or not your actions (either in that interactions or in a past interactions) have made this person defensive. Luckily I was able to squeeze it into a later slide. However, things got better once I got through the introductory slides and managed to get into the content. Funny how things get easier when you're passionate about something eh?

The meaty content. This is the part of the presentation I love. I am passionate about how language techniques can change a conversation. The words we say, how we say them, and how we act while saying them can change the entire outcome of our conversations. So can how we react to others and how they use those language techniques. That's what I want people to take away from this talk; you have the power to change the direction and outcome of the conversation based on your reactions, no matter how someone speaks to you. People have a hard time continuing to make it personal with you, when you do not make it personal with them. Let me repeat that so it sinks in. People have a hard time continuing to make it personal with you, when you do not make it personal with them.

This brings us to the tactics. I won't go into detail about every tactic I discuss in the presentation (they're in the slides if you want to know!) but the main point is about being more aware. Instead of reacting quickly and emotionally, which we tend to do, step back and make sure that you're identifying what language technique is in use, how it is making you feel and extracting that out of the conversation in order to get back to the point. For example, identifying what the implication is in a sentence, identify why they may be implying that so you can defend yourself without being defensive. You don't need to say "I'm not lazy!", you can say "We didn't test featureA due to time, this was discussed with the Product Owner, other Developers etc." so that they have a reason to change their thinking instead of just having you tell them to. But what is the point in tactics without practice?

Interactive audience participation time! Yes, yes. I know, "But Bailey, this was a session talk not a workshop!". I decided that without participation and a chance to try out these new skills I am trying to teach, this talk is significantly less useful. It's easy to listen to someone talk, listen to their suggestions, walk out of the talk and.... never think about it ever again. Or even go back to the office, tell the team you have great ideas, try to implement it and then go "wait... how was that supposed to work?". I wanted to make this as effective as possible, which meant it was time to split into groups and give these tactics a try. I asked attendees to get into groups of at least 2 and take turns being the person making it personal, trying the language techniques in order to make their partner(s) feel like their were being personally attacked, and the person who was trying to shift the conversation back to being objective and productive. I was absolutely terrified that no one would participate. Fortunately, I had the most incredible audience and everyone got very involved in both roles. The goal of this wasn't just to try the tactics out however, it was to help people see how often they likely use these techniques in their daily interactions. Self awareness was definitely one thing that I wanted people to also take away from the exercise.

After everyone had their fun and their turn in each role I concluded the talk and then came the questions. This was the part of the talk I was most afraid for prior to giving it. It ended up being my favourite part of the session. People had the most spectacular questions. I wish that I could remember every single one but in the high energy of speaking and then the flurry of activity after I sadly lost some of them to the depths of my mind.

One, that was more of a comment but was fantastic, was that they found during the exercise that it was never one technique used. People would be trying to use implication for example, but their body language would also but the person on the defensive and they found they had to think about both. This was such an amazing observation. Originally I had planned to mention something similar in my talk and I realised the benefit of having not, having people reach the conclusion on their own was actually better for them than having me say it. They all took a step back and started to realise how much of an impact all of these techniques really do have in their day to day lives, even when it isn't negative.

The next question was about how to change your body language, because if you're constantly correcting a variety of the things you do you may look a little odd. For example, trying to keep uncrossing your arms and making eye contact and not looking at your phone and and and. But my best advice, and this goes for EVERY tactic I discuss, do it incrementally. Don't try and change your entire behaviour pattern in one day, or one week or one month even. If you can change one thing at a time, and replace a negative use of a language technique with a positive one, you will see a difference. Once you master one, work on another and just let it grow. Growth doesn't just happen overnight, you have to keep working on it over time and you will be stunned by how much of a difference one small change can make.

On that topic of differences one small change can make... The next question came from someone who commented that they found it was very hard after the third or fourth back and forth with their partner to keep coming up with ways to make it personal that weren't awkward or felt very out of place. This was a great reinforcement of "People have a hard time continuing to make it personal with you, when you do not make it personal with them". I can say it as many times as I want, but when you actually feel that way in the interaction you see just how true it is. Now don't get me wrong, there will always be one person who no matter what just has an attitude that makes things personal, but hopefully they are few and far between.

Though there were many more great questions I want to leave those three as the highlights. Overall, I couldn't have asked for a better experience for my first time presenting. I've also attached a Sketch Note that Marianne Duijst made during my session! Hopefully as time goes on and I continue to give this talk to more and more audiences I will be able to share even more about the things I learn from my attendees. If you have any questions, feedback, or anything else to say please reach out to me!




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