How Testers Can Communicate More Effectively
How many times have you been in a situation where a decision was made that may not have been in the best interests of an IT project? As testers, our role has been described as similar to car headlights. Although we might illuminate the project and provide advance warning of risks, we’re definitely not in the driver’s seat. For this reason, communication skills are critical to our profession.
A key aspect of our communication is persuasion—like when we’re arguing that a defect is important, that we need more resources, or that a longer period of testing is required. Effective persuasion relies on our understanding the other side’s perspective, what drives them, and how we can get their attention amid the “noise” of competing considerations.
To be an effective communicator, one of our first decisions is which mode to use. In some cases, a well-written email with lots of white space, a meaningful subject line, and a concise message might be the best option because it provides a record of the communication. However, many of us are deluged with email to the point where face-to-face or telephone communication can be more effective. Verbal communication offers the advantages of vocal color, body language, immediacy, and two-way interaction.
The tone of our communication is also important. When seeking to persuade, we need to be as subtle as possible to avoid breeding resistance. One technique that can be effective is asking questions with embedded messages. For example, asking a project manager “What percentage of test cases are we allowed to skip to meet our release date?” can be a way of conveying the message that a resource problem exists. Another technique, which comes from journalism, is called the “pause pit.” Here you ask a question, and after the answer, you pause. To end the uncomfortable silence, the other person will often reveal deeper issues, providing greater insight.
Effective vocal technique is important in one-on-one interaction but even more so in meetings and when giving presentations. Practicing with varying pitch, pace, pause, and projection, preferably by using a recorder, can be useful—despite the initial pain of listening to yourself.
In all our communication, we need to maintain a high degree of quality. When we write test plans or defect reports that contain typos and grammatical errors, we risk damaging our credibility. The same applies to writing blogs. A thoughtful, well-written blog can enhance our reputation as testing professionals, but an amateurish effort can broadcast our ineptitude to the whole world.
Agile has had a huge impact on our communication. Whereas once upon a time we might have been located apart from our developer colleagues, we are now often integrated into teams that include both developers and business representatives. This has placed increased demands on our interpersonal skills—diplomacy, empathy, listening, and being able to explain technical concepts in nontechnical language.
One final point about communication concerns the issue of whether “more communication” is always better. Sometimes, the most effective communication can be silence.
Thomas McCoy is presenting the tutorials Applying Emotional Intelligence to Testing and Getting Your Message Across: Communication Skills for Testers at STARWEST, in Anaheim, CA, October 12–17, 2014.