Communication: Throwing the ball so others can catch it

“You are unusually direct,” Elsa said to me. She was one of the first people I hired in my first management role, in the late 1990s. She said this to me on a few occasions as we worked on a large project together. I took it as a compliment then, but with hindsight I see that Elsa found my forthrightness to be challenging.

I say half-jokingly that I was this direct because I have hillbilly and blue-collar roots. My dad grew up in the hills of West Virginia. His family moved to Indiana to find factory and construction work. Dad worked in a farm-equipment factory while I grew up. In the culture I came from, anything less than saying it straight — no matter how much the words hurt — is seen as being untrustworthy.

Handley, WV
Handley, West Virginia, pop. 350 — where my dad’s family is from

I was proud of my direct manner. I believed that my forthrightness was good and valuable. It came from a place of wanting good outcomes for the company, customers, and my co-workers. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk, but that’s how I was sometimes perceived.

I’d been a manager for about 10 years when the fellow I worked for at the time said it to me: “Jim. You’ve got to stop leaving dead bodies behind when you talk. Learn some tact.” He told me he’d like to see me move up in the organization, but not while this behavior stood in my way.

That got my attention. I had been pitching fastballs at peoples’ foreheads. That boss coached me in throwing drifts that others can catch. I’ve practiced it ever since, and have built reasonable skill. It has unlocked all sorts of opportunity for me. It has helped me build influence and trust.

It took a long time for more nuanced communication to not feel wrong. It turns out I’m not among my hillbilly family, and I’m not working a blue-collar job. I’m working with midwestern professionals, and the rules are different.

I revert to my natural form when I’m anxious, over-stressed, or very tired. Those are not my finest moments.

But there are times when speaking directly is valuable. Emergencies are one such time. A couple companies ago I managed the testing team. Production went down while all of the site operations managers were at a conference. I was ranking manager, so I dove in and, using my natural directness, led the team to quickly find root cause and get Production back up again. One engineer praised me: “You came outta nowhere and crisply and efficiently drove the train back onto the track. I’ve never seen this side of you!”

Another time is when I think I see something critical that nobody else does, and nuanced communication is not getting the ball across the plate. A flat statement can grab attention and change the conversation. It can also blow up in my face, so it’s a calculated risk. I’m hoping it works because it seems so out of character. “Whoa, Jim is really strident about this one. He’s usually so collegial. Maybe we should listen a little more closely.”

Finally, sometimes you have to say a flat “no” to a challenging request. I try very hard to find a way to say yes while highlighting the tradeoffs I or my team will have to make. “Could you deliver this feature two weeks earlier?” “Yes, if I pause work on this other feature.” Or, “Yes, if we trim scope and accept greater quality risk.” Or, “Yes, if we can flow some of the work through this other team.” But if scope, quality, and team are fixed and don’t support the timeline, I’m left to say no, and I do so plainly.

I will always wish I could be direct all the time. It’s how I’m made. But I care more about being effective than leaning into my basic nature.

I first shared this post on my software blog, here. It felt like a general enough topic to share here as well. It expands on a comment I left on another post on this subject, on Johanna Rothman’s blog, here.

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Stories Told

Seeking injunctive relief from the misuse of “amazing”

I’m rerunning this 2011 post because it didn’t solve the problem the first time. Try, try again.

CAUSE NO.  _________________________





The Petitioner alleges against the Respondent and states as follows:

  1. That the word “amazing” means “causing a sudden, overwhelming sense of surprise, astonishment, or wonder;” that without all three points of this definition, namely sudden, plus overwhelming, plus surprise/astonishment/wonder, the word amazing cannot apply.
  2. That the Respondent has, in recent years, taken to using the word “amazing” in contexts beyond the word’s originally contemplated meanings:
    • That although the Respondent may say that their children are amazing, that they routinely fart and belch, and fail to do their homework and receive poor grades, and play too many video games, and text their friends during dinner; indeed, their lives are spent engaged primarily in non-amazing activities.
    • That the Respondent is known to call church worship services amazing when, in fact, the experiences were merely uplifting or deeply moving. An amazing service would involve God being bodily present, healing leprosy and making the lame walk.
    • That when the Respondent takes in a sporting event and calls the score, the players, the coach, certain plays, the arena, and even the hot dogs amazing, just as he/she did at the previous sporting event, and the one before that, that such events are therefore common and not amazing.
    • That the meal the Respondent had at the fine restaurant, or that the Respondent’s mother made at the last major holiday, may have been quite delicious, and may have introduced delightful new flavors to the Respondent’s palate, but remained far from the realm of amazing.
    • That the Respondent’s last vacation to a distant location may have provided many exciting experiences not available at home. But given that the location has its own problems, such as widespread poverty, confiscatory taxation, a shortage of drinkable water, or a wicked tsumani season, it is inaccurate to call the location amazing.
    • That when the Respondent, in the execution of his/her duties at his/her place of employment, calls the company’s offered products or services amazing, that this is just marketing puffery intended to mask the problems the Respondent knows to exist in the products or services. Moreover, the rare product that may have initially caused true amazement, such as the iPhone, quickly becomes widely adopted, irreparably harming its ability to amaze.
  3. That Respondent’s overuse and misapplication of the word “amazing” has cheapened the word and rendered it nearly meaningless, causing it severe damage. As such, the word needs the Court’s protection.
  4. Therefore, the Petitioner seeks injunctive relief from the Respondent, requiring them to consider whether synonyms of “amazing” such as “astonishing,” “astounding,” “stupefying,” “awe-inspiring,” or “mind-boggling” could accurately be used instead, and if not, to choose an adjective that accurately describes the event, person, object, or situation.

I affirm under the penalties for perjury that the foregoing representations are true.

Jim Grey

Stories Told

I wouldn’t be a writer were it not for the computer

Much hullabaloo was made in June when the Indiana Department of Education sent a memo to schools that made teaching cursive handwriting optional and emphasized teaching keyboarding skills. The decision touched a statewide nerve, and the responses were binary: hands were wrung, or relief was sighed.

All of my sons, I’m sure, are in the latter camp. My 12- and 14-year-old sons discarded cursive shortly after they learned it, rebuffing my protests that cursive writing is faster than printing. My 26-year-old stepson was compelled to use cursive in school, but has printed ever since. I believe he’s representative of his generation – this anti-cursive sentiment is not a recent development.

I was taught the dreaded Palmer Method in elementary school in the 1970s, but never got the hang of it. I hated writing in cursive until I was about 13 when I decided to heck with Palmer and adapted his method to suit me. My hand became legible and writing in script became a pleasure. But then my teachers started asking me to write papers, and handwriting became a drag again. I’d write, rewrite, and re-rewrite until I had all the words arranged to my satisfaction. Then I’d write a final clean, legible copy. It took forever. I decided that if I had to go through all that, then I hated writing!

Looking for relief, in the eighth grade I took a class in touch typing. Row after row of Olympia typewriters just like that one filled the classroom. But I found no joy on them, as I found typing to be difficult. It was work pressing those keys hard enough to get the typebars to reach the platen. An A in typing required 40 words per minute, but by the end of the semester I managed a dismal 14 words per minute. The less said about the corresponding grade the better.

But then my dad bought me a Commodore 64, which was a watershed moment in my life not only because I taught myself to write code on it but because it finally made typing a pleasure. Light pressure on any key made its character instantly appear on the screen. When I entered college, one of my roommates let me use his PC and word-processing program to type my papers. My typing skill and speed increased dramatically, to the point where I could type almost as fast as my brain could think. The mechanical process of transcribing my words was no longer a barrier in the writing process, and I began to enjoy writing. After college, I took several jobs as a writer and editor and thus fed my family for 14 years.

I type blazingly fast today. Is it any wonder that when I have anything substantial to write, I want to do it at the computer? But that doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy, and often miss, putting an actual pen to actual paper. Perhaps I should take up writing and mailing short notes and cards to my friends and family. If enough people did that, maybe the United States Postal Service wouldn’t be so strapped for cash.

The other thing I came to enjoy in school was singing. It sustains me. Read that story.