DRAFT This post is a work in progress (like most parts of this blog).

Many software developers could benefit from learning evidence-based social skills: in particular, assertive communication. I sure did.

Adopting an assertive style is worth it. Lack of assertiveness creates unresolved conflicts and avoidant problem-solving. Assertiveness encourages active, collaborative problem-solving and removes social obstacles to rapid development.

This blog post does not teach evidence-based social skills; rather, it is a story about my experience learning them. My learning approach involved seeing a psychologist, reading books, and practicing. After fifteen years, my social effectiveness at work has improved a lot (though my colleagues will attest that it still has much room for improvement).

My timeline of learning social skills.

DRAFT This post is a work in progress.

Social skills training first came to my attention in university while attending classes in counseling psychology and volunteering at the Vancouver Crisis Center. University classes gave me the theory; volunteering let me practice skills. In particular, the volunteering taught me the fundamentals of non-directive problem solving, boundary setting, open-ended questions, active listening, and how to avoid giving advice. The university classes introduced me to cognitive behavioral therapy, and that changed my life.

Mental illness crept up on me while I was volunteering a the Vancouver Crisis Center. That lead me to finding a psychologist. In addition to other life strategies, the psychologist (Dr. Randy Patterson) taught me dating skills, friendship skills, workplace skills, and a lot of assertiveness.

At this point I started to read books about social skills, assertiveness, and anger management. With the help of Dr. Randy Paterson, and with my typical persistence, my confidence grew, as did my emotional awareness and skill relating to others. Sometimes I joke with my wife that she dated my psychologist by proxy, because he taught me about dating, and I applied the skills to our early relationship.

Once I entered the workforce, learning professional workplace skills took the main stage. I have come to believe that the world's software would be better if more developers learned to be assertive at work. How often do we give up on technical excellence and blame our colleagues or manager? How often does aggression or blame prevent calm, collaborative problem solving? How often do we break with professional ethics instead of saying no?

Here are three personal examples of using an assertive "no" at work.

  1. In an early job, I assertively said "no" to the CEO, who had asked me to multiply video-view-counts by one thousand to make the site look more popular.
  2. In a mid-career job, I resigned after the human resources department told me to accept an acknowledged pattern of bullying.  
  3. As a senior software developer, after presenting a security proposal, I said "no" to implementing a different, expedient design that we knew did not protect end users.

Those are three of many instances where being assertive at work has helped me immensely.

Beliefs that have helped me.

DRAFT This post is a work in progress.
  • Feeling angry is healthy.
  • Expressing aggression is unhealthy.
  • Everyone is doing the best they can to take care of themselves.
  • Our own anger is a cue to find a resolution.
  • During negotiations, negotiate our own behavior.
  • Helping other people to change requires long-term, sustained, strategic effort.
  • Can you listen without agreeing or disagreeing?
  • We can avoid confrontation; we cannot avoid conflict.
  • Skillful confrontation is vital to the success of software teams.
  • Guessing what other people think is likely to be inaccurate.
  • Our level of assertiveness is context specific.
  • I am not the source of all truth.

Skills that have helped me.

DRAFT This post is a work in progress.
  • Social balancing.
  • Negotiating intimacy.
  • Body language.
  • Sharing opinions.
  • Accepting positive feedback.
  • Accepting critical/constructive feedback.
  • Giving positive feedback.
  • Giving constructive feedback.
  • Saying no.
  • Making requests without controlling others.
  • Constructive confrontations.
  • Interviewing others.
  • Being interviewed.
  • Negotiation.
  • Incremental boundary setting.
  • Working with "talkers".

Recommended Resources

   Alberti, R. E., & Emmons, M. (1995). Your Perfect Right. San Luis Obispo, California: Impact Publishers.

   Bilsker, D., Gilbert, M., & Samra, J. (2009). Antidepressant Skills at Work: Dealing with mood problems in the workplace. Retrieved from http://www.comh.ca/antidepressant-skills/work/workbook/pages/worksheets-01.cfm.

   Crisp, Q., & Carrol, D (1981). Doing It With Style. London: Methuen

   McKay, M. & Rogers, R. (2000). The Anger Control Workbook: Simple, innovative techniques for managing anger and developing healthier ways of relating. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

   McKay, M., Davis, M., & Fanning, P. (2009). Messages: The Communication Skills Book. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

   Paterson, R. J. (2000). The assertiveness workbook: How to express your ideas and stand up for yourself at work and in relationships. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.