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Communicating & Connecting

Just because we’re talking to each other in Zoom, Slack, or via Email, doesn’t mean we’re fully embodying our values of Done is Better Than Perfect, Be Hard on Problems, Not People and Ask Why. To do so fully, we have to build our skills in how we connect with each other. Specifically, we have norms and core behaviors in the following areas related to connection.

  • Disclosure

  • Feedback

  • Conflict

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    Aptible Team Members (From Left to Right): Albert Wong, Sarah Veirs, Chris Gomes


An Introduction: The Johari Window

The rest of this section frames our interpersonal communication in terms of disclosure and feedback. In order to understand what these two concepts mean, and why we’re focusing on them, we’d like to start by introducing the Johari Window. The Johari Window was created by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrison Ingham, as a way of thinking about how our communication with each other can help us learn more about ourselves and others.

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Johari Window

To summarize the Johari Window, as it applies to the 1:1 relationship between me and you:

  • There are things about me which are known both to me and you. We say that this is open knowledge.

  • There are things about me which I know but you don’t know. This is hidden knowledge.

  • There are also things about me which you know but I don’t know. We say that I am blind to this knowledge.

  • Through disclosure, or revealing information about myself — how I’m feeling, etc. — I expand the scope of open knowledge to allow you know things about me which were previously hidden.

  • By giving me feedback, you expand the scope of my open knowledge so that I may learn things about myself to which I was previously blind.


Connecting Through Disclosure

As we discussed above, disclosure enables us to reveal ourselves to others. Before we talk about norms and core behaviors around disclosure, we want to share a useful concept for thinking about the choices we have for what and how we disclose with others:

Five Levels of Interpersonal Communication

Richard Francisco introduced this concept in his “Five Levels of Communication,” which is Chapter 2.6 of the Reading Book for Human Relations Training. Ed Batista, a Stanford GSB Lecturer who teaches the “Touchy Feely” course, gives a good summary of the Five Levels in this blog post.

Here’s a summary of the 5 Levels from Francisco’s chapter:

  • Level 1 — Ritual: Ex. “Good morning. How are you?” “Fine.”

  • Level 2 — Extended Ritual: Ex: “Looks like we’re going to have some good weather today.” “Yeah, too bad we’re cooped up inside all day.”

  • Level 3 — Surface-Level Personal: Ex: “I’m Jack Davis. I work in shipping.” “Nice to meet you, Jack. I’m Juan Garcia.”

  • Level 4 — Feelings about Self (in Relation to Content): Ex: “I’m upset about the performance review I had yesterday.” “That sounds hard.”

  • Level 5 — Feelings about Us (and Our Relationship): Ex: “Thanks for the support. I’m glad we connected.” “Thanks for saying that. I too value our relationship.”

At work, there is utility in all five levels. However, most of us avoid levels 4 and 5 because we have internal rules or assumptions that sharing emotions isn’t permitted or useful at work. At Aptible, we believe differently.

  • Emotions belong in the workplace. Emotions are what make us human. We owe it to ourselves and to our teammates to bring our full emotional selves to work.

  • Emotions are data. We really recommend that you read Anamaria Nino-Murcia’s’s article on this topic. To save you some time and hopefully entice you to read the article, here are the two key insights that Anamaria makes in that article (copied verbatim):

When you accept the framing of emotions as data, you are freed up to engage with emotions (yours and others’) in ways you previously ignored or avoided. 

As you learn how to identify and express your emotions as data, you will cultivate more precision and range in how you identify and report your emotional data. And when you track that data more precisely over time, you can glean insights from the patterns that emerge.

  • “Negative” emotions are valuable too. Emotions like anger, fear and uncertainty are not only OK, they’re especially good signals for us. They tell us what we care about, what’s important to us, what we think might be at risk. It’s important that we don’t try to hide these emotions from our working environment at Aptible. To dig deeper, we recommend reading Anamaria’s “In Defense of Negative Emotions.”

  • Empathy fuels connections. Brené Brown gave a great talk on empathy — what it means, and how to do it. If we’re bringing our full emotional selves to work, we need to be prepared to be empathetic to our teammates when they disclose information to us, especially when they make themselves vulnerable in doing so.

  • You don’t always need to be problem-solving. This is a specific, valuable insight from the Brené Brown talk linked above. As she says, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”

  • Vulnerability is strength. Here’s another great talk by Brené Brown. In it, she talks about her research into vulnerability, and her findings: 1) People who have a strong sense of self-worth are the same people who “embrace vulnerability.” 2) People who disclose their vulnerability build stronger connections with and have a greater influence on other people.

Fort Light Feelings Chart and “Emotional Precision”

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The Feelings Chart is a helpful way to connect with our emotions in order to more effectively use them in disclosure. By referring to the Feelings Chart when we’re communicating with each other, we can practice articulating more precisely how we’re feeling. As a result, we’ll be better able to connect with each other, grow as a team, and empower ourselves to solve the hardest challenges we’re facing.

Aptible Managers will often use the Feelings Chart during 1:1s, eliciting disclosure and feedback through questions like:

  • “Take a look at the Feelings Chart. How are you feeling in this moment?”

  • “Think back over the last week/month/quarter. Try to think of a moment where something I did or said had an especially positive or negative effect on you. What was that situation? How did you feel in that moment?”

Disclosure Core Behaviors

  • If you’re feeling something, share it. Disclosing our feelings to each other builds connection, helps us learn about each other, and most importantly helps us help and support each other.

  • If you’re having trouble articulating precisely what you’re feeling, refer to the Feelings Chart.

  • Peel back the layers of your emotions to better understand your core feelings, beliefs and assumptions. Especially if you’re feeling angry, sad or worried, remember that these emotions are often “road signs” — see “In Defense of Negative Emotions” mentioned above — that point to an important belief or assumption you hold.


Connecting Through Feedback

To quote Michael Terrell (“What is ‘Feedback’ Anyways”): When we talk about feedback at Aptible, we mean:

the practice of sharing with you the impact of your behavior on me (and potentially on the team) with the intent of helping you be more successful.

Going back to the Johari Window, when we receive feedback, it helps us learn about ourselves as well as about the person giving the feedback. (In giving feedback, the feedback giver is almost always also disclosing some of their own feelings.)

In order to give and receive feedback effectively, we use a few principles — ”Minding the Net” and The Feedback Formula — and apply these principles through some core behaviors. We’ll talk about these now:

“Minding the Net”

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“The Net” represents a boundary that we strive to respect whenever giving feedback to a teammate. The core ideas behind the net are:

  • The person giving feedback has feelings, thoughts, “stories” (i.e., inner narratives or explanations for what they’re observing) and judgments — none of which are visible to the person receiving the feedback.

  • Similarly, the person receiving feedback has desires, goals, and intentions that the feedback giver cannot know.

  • In between the feedback giver and receiver, there are shared, observable behaviors. We like to use the metaphor of a video camera in describing these behaviors: When giving feedback, the behavior you comment on should be something a video camera could have captured, something both you and the receiver can agree on. 1) An example of something that’s not an observable behavior is: “Doug was trying to micromanage me.” 2) On the other hand, an example of an observable behavior is: “Doug said ‘I want you to say [X] in your email to Maitreya…’” 

Fort Light expands on the metaphor of “The Net” like this:

Picture a singles tennis match. You’re standing on one side of the net, along with all of your feelings and reactions. Your counterpart across the net might not like some of your reactions, but their validity or truth is un-debatable. You are most powerful with your feedback when you stay “on your side of the net”— that is when you disclose your feelings and reactions to a piece of behavior rather than try to label the behavior or the other person.

To sum up how to avoid crossing over “The Net”:

  • Focus on sharing your feelings and reactions to some specific piece of their behavior.

  • Resist the urge to ascribe a label to the other person (i.e. “You’re a jerk.” This is not an objective fact, and others are likely to disagree). Examples: 1) Over the Net: “That was mean.” (Debatable) 2) Staying on Your Side of the Net: “I feel hurt.” (Not Debatable)

The Feedback Formula

When you said/did [Behavior 🎥], I felt [Feeling Word].

In order to respect “The Net,” we recommend following the Feedback Formula above. 

Feedback Core Behaviors

When Giving Feedback:

  • State your supportive intention.

  • Be specific or illustrative.

  • Comment only on observable behaviors.

  • State the impact (on you, your team, or Aptible).

  • Ask questions before giving the feedback, in order to clarify your message.

  • Be clear what you’re asking for.

For more detail on these core behaviors, or for a handy printable reference, see the Fort Light Giving Effective Feedback Checklist.

When Receiving Feedback:

  • Listen to the feedback.

  • Inquire with curiosity.

  • Summarize what you hear.

  • Manage your defensiveness.

  • Pause and breathe.

  • Be clear about any action commitments.

For more detail on these core behaviors, or for a handy printable reference, see the Fort Light Receiving Effective Feedback Checklist.


Connecting Through Conflict

Conflict/Disagreement Core Behaviors

  • Prefer to give feedback over Zoom. If you can meet in person, even better. It’s critically important to be able to see each other’s faces when giving feedback, so that you can fully leverage the emotional data on both sides of giving and receiving feedback.

  • Wait until cooldown, and prepare your feedback. It may be helpful to write down what you’re feeling, including notes on exactly what you observed (versus any “story” you created about your observations that might assume the other person’s intent). The more clearly you can articulate exactly what the other person did/said, and exactly how it made you feel, the more powerful your feedback will be.

  • Assume positive intent. Feedback only works when the feedback giver and receiver start from a place of assuming mutual positive intent, and shared goals. 

  • Clarify “blur words.” 1) When giving feedback, try to stick to the Feedback Formula, and try to make sure that what you “feel” is an actual emotion. In particular, avoid saying “I feel like” — what follows this phrase usually isn’t an emotion. 2) When receiving feedback, listen for blur words. Instead of feeling defensive when you hear them, ask the feedback giver to clarify what they mean.

GOOD: “When you closed my GitHub PR, I felt annoyed.”

BAD: “When you closed my GitHub PR, I felt like you were avoiding giving me feedback.”

  • Recognize tension, and name it. We call this “putting the fish on the table.” Tension is normal during conflict or when giving feedback. By calling it out — ”I just want to point out that I feel tense/nervous right now” — you can build trust with the other person. There’s a good chance they’re feeling the same way.