Tips on Working With Diverse Teams: Conversation Style

Look how many women are at Google I/O – this is my world. Let’s change it.

I was recently on a call with a developer (woman), and a colleague who was her supervisor (male). This colleague is *very* well-intentioned and the last thing he wanted was to alienate, silence, diminish, humiliate, or shame the developer. He truly wanted to know what she thought, and to collaborate on a touchy timeline estimate we were building.

Throughout my career, as a woman and working with diverse teams, I’ve noticed a few things that made me think that women, as well as people from other cultures, minorities, or any “other” in the American technical workspace, may be contributing in a style different from what we expect. American business style is a certain way- and I can see the effectiveness of it- but for more diverse teams, there are other techniques to getting the strongest collaborative product out with all resources available.

Ask open-ended questions, and wait for the answer.
Don’t predict or propose a solution or statement. Instead, ask an open-ended question, to find out what they think. Wait for them to actually complete the entire thought. I feel like the American discourse style promotes initiative, assertiveness, and directness, and this is not taught or supported in other cultures (in France, for example, I was routinely told to downplay initiative). So by asking open questions, and creating clear interval or silence where you are listening for the response, helps bring out opinions from others that may be intimidated, or generally not as forceful speakers.

Ask leading questions
Contrary to above, ask questions that posit a strawman or a certain attitude or potential criticism. Then, key to this, is to wait for the full answer to complete.

Your point is stronger knowing the other collaborators’ opinions
You may know the right answer. You may have solved the problem. But your argument, eventually, is far more persuasive if you have heard more opinions from the team, and know how it fits in with your final argument. Listening to as many individuals in a team as you can get- regardless of seniority or experience- strengthens your position.

Ask before you posit your own opinion
It sets bias to say what you think, before asking for a response. Especially if you are senior or in a position of more strength than the person you’re asking. So always ask first.

Building goodwill
I learned a lesson in one of my first workplaces- about goodwill- that has proved itself over and over again.

I had a colleague that was much older than me, and knew almost everything about our little software animation shop (4 people, including 2 co-founders). Classic startup- I worked the phone, customer service, accounts payable, product management, and (cough) engineering. Whenever I had a question, I asked him. He got tired of this, and stopped wanting to help me. What I was told by my boss (the president) was that I “hadn’t built up goodwill.” Regardless of whether it was in this guy’s job description (my argument), I had to still help him. I had to make it worthwhile for him to help me.

How goodwill relates to the collaborative process: communicate what you have learned in gathering opinions, for example. Communicate to the developer how her opinion is backed up by other investigations into the problem. Reveal and contribute, where you can, to help her be part of the solution. In the future, she will be more ready to contribute and offer resources to the solution. Sure, it’s in her job description, but showing the final goal and how she contributes to the goal is how you, as a senior person, can give something valuable back to her. Take an opportunity to help her if you know a way of researching a problem she has had. Unsolicited help, or asking if she needs more eyes on a problem. Offer to pair, or contribute feedback before she submits her next pull request.