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A Model for (Interpersonal) Interaction

January 18, 2009

You know what’s hard? Convincing a four-year-old she needs to put on sunscreen before going out to the playground to play. This is how I spent most of my summers in junior high, high school, and college. I worked for a nursery school’s summer program. I had kids who would sit on other kids to get their way. Kids who would stick things up their nose. Kids who would clog toilets with toilet paper claiming, “I made a big poop!” As a teenager, I found these antics frustrating, but also understood the delicate balance of the emotional life of a four-year-old. Lose patience and I’d just make things worse.

Sometimes I’ll be on a conference call, listening to a client revise his requirements for a project for the third time and I think about those moments. This is the hardest part of our jobs as designers—working with other people. Imagining new products, tweaking design details, and analyzing research to understand how users perceive or engage with a product–these are the reasons we got into the business. But compromising on design ideas to “realize the vision” of a client, managing stubborn team members, chasing down the boss for feedback are the tasks that take up the bulk of our time.

And it’s where most designers are least prepared.

It’s this thought process that led me and my colleague Chris Detzi to propose a workshop for this year’s IA Summit on People Skills. Though we’ve recast the session as “Mastering Difficult Conversations” to align it with the Summit’s overall marketing, it’s more than that. In this workshop, we want to help participants to reflect on their communications style and establish an overall philosophy. By giving yourself some parameters, understanding your strengths and weaknesses, you can become a better communicator overall.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the end of every difficult conversation. But perhaps by focusing on these skills, those difficult conversations can be (a) more productive and (b) less riddled with anxiety. The other side of this coin is that communication skills are important not just for the difficult clients and colleagues. Even for your favorite customers and collaborators, you want to make sure you communicate your ideas succinctly and sensitively because they’re the ones you want to stick around, right?

In our first brainstorming meeting, Chris and I had a great time thinking through all the personality traits we’d encountered over the years: clients who float with the breeze, designers who miss the forest for the leaves, bosses who can’t be bothered to provide constructive feedback. But what started to materialize was a framework for thinking about these soft skills. Chris and I started with a handful of basic concepts–people, skills, artifacts–and I left the meeting hoping to turn this basic set of ideas into a meaningful diagram. As I pushed on it, a few other concepts emerged, and this is the picture as it stands:

Framework for People Skills

(If you couldn’t tell, I’ve been reading Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin. Though I’ve barely scratched the surface, it’s definitely encouraged me to use rough sketches. So though I’m generally more of a vector art, large format kinda guy, I’m getting back to basics.)

This diagram might not say anything particularly revolutionary, but it does provide a framework for thinking about the different aspects of a situation and how I might influence them. Here are the basic components:

  • Circumstances: There’s always a situation that serves as the backdrop for any interpersonal communication. The circumstance can be passive–it only provides a context and setting for the communication. Or it can be active, whereby surrounding events trigger the communication. It’s also clear that circumstances are nested. The immediate circumstance might be a meeting, which is inside a project, which is inside the corporate culture. Crucial skills are being perceptive of circumstances
  • Agenda: People come to a situation with an agenda or objective. They may have something specific that they want to accomplish, or they may simply have an underlying philosophy, approach, or vision that’s driving their decisions. Agendas may affect the circumstances. That is, the situation may be the way that it is because of someone’s vision. Alternatively, as new situations arise, people may have new short-term objectives in response to them. Crucial skills are anticipating other people’s agendas and being aware of your own agenda.
  • Messages: In this diagram, the message is what is said. The crucial skill here is knowing what to say. While not the only ingredient to successfully managing an situation, the content of a message is central to it.
  • Tools and Artifacts: Simply put, these are the mechanisms we use to deliver messages to each other. The crucial skills here are knowing which medium is most effective for a given message and situation, and how to best use that medium. A passionate speech about a design is more effective over the phone or in person than it is written out in prose.
  • Traits and Habits: People have different personalities, manifested in their traits and habits, two related notions that I haven’t yet picked apart. These might be as superficial as “late for every meeting” or as deep as “doesn’t take responsibility”. These aren’t represented in the diagram explicitly, but it’s a person’s traits and habits that will influence his agenda, his choice of message and communication tool, and his perception of the situation.
  • Skills: Skills are our means for overcoming our own personality traits and bad habits. By learning appropriate skills, we can make considered decisions, incorporating not only our gut reaction, but thoughtful perceptions of the situation and participants.

Obviously, reality is much more complex. There are messages delivered through other people. Messages withheld, never delivered at all. There’s unproductive but perhaps necessary activities like gossiping or complaining. But to help practicing designers, the model gives us the most relevant aspects we need to consider and can influence. Plus, it’s only a four-hour workshop.

I’m not sure if Chris and I will unpack this model further in the workshop. Our intent is to make it not so theoretical and more fun and cathartic.

Interested in this stuff? Sign up for our workshop!

Note: the registration form says the workshop is Wednesday afternoon. It will actually be on Thursday afternoon!

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