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

Adopting an assertive style is difficult but both doable and worth it. Whereas lack of assertiveness creates unresolved conflicts and avoidant problem-solving, assertiveness encourages active, collaborative problem-solving and removes social obstacles to technical excellence and rapid development. And it's a skill we can learn.

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 and reading the books that are listed at the end of this blog post. After fifteen years on this path, my interpersonal effectiveness at work has vastly improved (though my colleagues will attest that it still has much room for improvement).

My timeline of learning social skills.

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

Then mental illness crept up on me while I was volunteering a the Vancouver Crisis Center, and seeing a psychologist further introduced me to social skills. In addition to other changes, the psychologist Dr. Randy Patterson taught me social skills. The skills ranged from dating skills, to friendship skills, to workplace skills, and included 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.

Professional workplace skills took the main stage for me on entering the workforce as a software developer. I slowly came 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 the calm, collaborative problem solving that leads a team to elegant designs? How often do we break with professional ethics instead of saying no?

Here are three personal examples of using an assertive "no" at work. First, 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. Second, in a mid-career job, I resigned after the human resources department told me to accept an acknowledged pattern of bullying.  Third, 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.

Beliefs that have helped me.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.