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One of the main feedback points I got from my performance review was that my colleagues complained/commented that they feel that I go into discussions too aggressively, that I try to push through on my own viewpoint and that I drag out discussions.

However, I also got a positive feedback point in that I have a strong (and backed) opinion and that it's good to have different opinions in the team, as it allows us to explore more ideas.

It is not that I actually think my opinion is always best; it's more that I am more likely to defend it and quicker to think discussing opinions is valuable, I suppose. And that's a value that is well-regarded and should remain as such.

Regardless, I feel that if people feel too threatened to start up a discussion, they simply defer to me (and resent it later). That is a big issue, so I'd like to change my attitude in discussions.

How do I have a good technical discussion, with a goal of "finding the best solution to the given problem", without scaring off colleagues or coming across too aggressively?

Details that might matter:

  • We're a distributed software development scrum team of 5 developers
  • One colleague and I are Western European, the other 3 members are Indian
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Have you tried just mentioning to them that while you may defend your point of view vigorously, you subscribe to the concept of "Strong Opinions, Weakly Held" and that they shouldn't feel threatened or think that you're not open to hearing their side? – Lilienthal Feb 17 at 16:47
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Great Question! I'm excited to see the answers from people. I am conscious about this when I'm in meetings too. I try really hard to listen as much as possible, but finding that window of when to offer my thoughts is always on my mind. – Baronz Feb 17 at 17:10
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@Lilienthal yes, I have mentioned this before. I also personally feel that I go with their input quite often, although they don't seem to agree entirely. – Erik Feb 17 at 20:40
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Great advice above and below, but also keep in mind that personality and delivery play a HUGE role in how defending one's opinion is perceived by others. I have one friend who defends his positions often, but when he does so, he does it in an abrasive, "I'm-right-and-you're-wrong" sort of way. And I hate it. On the other hand, I have ANOTHER friend who I have friendly arguments with ALL THE TIME because he's pleasant about it, and it's more friendly banter than actual arguing. I'd much rather argue and be proved wrong by the pleasant one than prove myself right with the abrasive one. – loneboat Feb 18 at 15:23
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"My colleagues feel that I go into discussions too aggressively - how do I fix this?" -- you can tell them where to stick it! – n00b Feb 18 at 21:48

12 Answers 12

up vote 61 down vote accepted

Westerners are normally blunt and value "efficient" communication as best possible. It's a "goal" to be as clear as possible in as few words as possible. This comes across as harsh/aggressive to Indians.

As for what to do? Make sure you understand what perspective others have. If you don't 100% understand it (not just thinking you do), ask more questions.

Ask lots of questions. Open ended questions, not "yes/no" questions. Indirect questions are better than direct questions as they encourage others to share their perspectives.

For example:

  • "Will this work?"
  • "What obstacles to this working do you see?"

Then, wait more than 1 second to get any thoughts. Especially if working remotely.

And most importantly, just stop talking if you feel you are arguing. It's ok to let others talk.


Also, be aware that if your Indian team are consultants there will be a "customer/client" relational gap. They will want to please you and say "yes." This will take dedicated effort on your part, through the above, to get through meaningfully.

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This is very good advice. I once worked with a guy who was one of the rudest, loudest, most short-tempered people I have ever met, but because he was aware of how he came across to others it wasn't such a problem. Just deeply understanding others' perspectives is 80% of the solution. – Owen Feb 17 at 22:38
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They will want to please you and say "yes." - some (possibly all) Indians that I've worked with (other people have had this experience) have a knack of overdoing that to the point of never admitting that they don't know or understand something, followed by them catastrophically screwing it up and not asking for help. It some sort of cultural thing, no doubt there's plenty of Indians who've wrapped their heads around the idea that it's ok to not know something but they're not as visible. I'm curious about what annoying traits Indians think Westerners have. – squigbobble Feb 18 at 9:38
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@squigbobble efficient communication to the point of coming across as harsh/aggressive seems to be one such trait ;) – rath Feb 18 at 11:39
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While asking questions is the best way to get others to believe you are giving their opinions a fair shake, it s also the best way to make them feel like you are "drag[ging] out discussions". – Jonathon Wisnoski Feb 18 at 18:43
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@JonathonWisnoski I suspect it's more because OP comes across as "having to be right" than actually dialoging. – enderland Feb 18 at 19:04

How do I have a good technical discussion, with a goal of "find the best solution to the given problem", without scaring off colleagues or coming across too aggressively?

It's fun to have technical discussions. But here, as in everything, it often pays to seek some moderation. You colleagues are suggesting that you are taking things too far.

Try to remember:

  • Discussions don't have to be a debate.
  • It isn't necessary to "win" a discussion
  • Usually there are many approaches that will solve a technical or business problem
  • It's not always important to find the "best" solution. Often "good enough in a timely fashin" is all that is really required
  • It's often more important that the team come up with a solution, and less important that it came from you

Some arguments just aren't worth having. Sometimes I have to ask my wife "Would you rather be happy, or rather be right?" when she gets carried away in a heated discussion.

If you find that you physically have a hard time controlling yourself, people often use a device that reminds them to stay calm. Some folks put an elastic band around their wrist as a reminder.

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This is a good managerial advice, or rather a typical managerial advice, although I don't mean it as a negative. Engineers like to discuss optimal solutions just for the brain exercise, all those advice would devalue it.It's like a game. I've had many many really heated technical discussions, and frankly it was a pleasurable experience to spare against friend. But mostly they were not dedicated to current tasks, as those were usually solved like you said, but I guess I want to say that, not everything has to have a clear business purpose and value. – luk32 Feb 18 at 3:39
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She'd probably rather that those around her didn't respond to her rightness by retaliating to make her unhappy ;-) But that's not in her power to control, co-workers unfortunately are going to push back when they feel slighted or out-maneouvered. – Steve Jessop Feb 18 at 10:35
    
Well, when it came to actual decision making, at some point it always came to "Do as you want, you know my point of view". It also depends what call aggressively, no names were called or anything. Anyways I wouldn't say anyone came into discussion like that, if anything it built up. I guess the problem is attaching too much pride to ideas. I also wonder what do you mean by drag out? If you try to find loopholes and exhaust all possibilities and ideas on an informal occasion, I guess it's ok. If you are in a 60 minute meeting with 6 people, trying to derail someone's solution for 30, it's bad. – luk32 Feb 18 at 15:47
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+1 for It isn't necessary to "win" a discussion. When working a problem, people should be willing to look for weaknesses in their own solution and plainly admit them so the Decider can make a properly informed decision. Unfortunately, if you're the only one following that advice and everyone else is trying to 'win', it can easily seem like your idea is the only one with significant negatives as everyone else is trying to omit or downplay negatives in their ideas. Although sometimes, people will see me doing this and follow suit. – jmathew Feb 18 at 22:36

What your question is telling me is that you're failing at playing office politics, and possibly at accounting for other people's cultures.

Disclaimer: I'm not trying to be mean.

Culture Clash

Culture can be ... iffy. For example, I have a South Korean friend. For them, even when angry, it's important to remain very respectful. Often I won't realize that he has an issue with something I've said or done because he tries to be very diplomatic about expressing any doubts or concerns.

I, on the other hand, am Eastern European. When I have an issue I voice my concerns loud and clear (and sometimes even with a minimal use of swear-words :P)

The end result is that - in the past - he ended up feeling like I'm purposefully ignoring his input/opinion. It lead to one particularly ugly argument where I felt like he'd never voiced any real concerns, while he felt like I'd trampled his opinion into the ground.

Long story short I've learned to pick up on his cues, express my opinions a little less forcibly, and he has "come out of his shell" a little bit and learned to be a little more blunt when dealing with me. We've been best friends for 13 years.

You may wish to look into how to deal with colleagues of an Indian background. Their culture may be such that your attitude seems particularly aggressive or rude to them, even while to a fellow Western European you simply seem enthusiastic, or energetic.

Office Politics

A lot of what you're saying sounds incredibly familiar to me. I, too, will defend an idea I think is superior vocally, while also pointing out any shortcomings of the opposition.

The problem has many possible angles, however the most important one is to come across as someone who is willing to listen. It's important for people to know that you're trying to find the best solution, not trying to simply put yourself above them.

For example, when you have an idea and are looking for technical input approach the team "hat in hand":

Hey guys, I have an idea regarding how to fix X, but I'm not sure if it's the best solution. Can I run it by you? I'm particularly concerned that my approach for Y might not be the best. (even if you're pretty sure it is the best. Let them reach that conclusion)

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Willing to listen is the best characteristic that can accompany a strong willed or opinionated/vocal character. It shows that even though you are firm in your belief or idea, you are open to input to improve and/or change your opinion. Try and communicate an open handed approach - palms up facing outwards - and you can reflect this literally in body language, as well as in the tone of your voice. – Viv Feb 17 at 23:29

After my first software design meeting (in which I explained my software design proposal), my first manager told me,

"It's not enough to be right."

I.e. the purpose of the meetings isn't only to discuss the software and to throw my proposal in their face. The purpose is also 'soft' e.g. to reach a team consensus, to hear from everyone, perhaps to let everyone feel they've had an opportunity to contribute, let them feel good about the team.

Maybe you shouldn't pride yourself on being "quick", either.

Another possibility is to specialize, e.g. at my current job I do software-design things without asking, but whenever there's a UI-design question I'm not sure of, then I ask someone else who's good with the UI. You could do the same with (open questions to other people) for other bits you're not sure of (e.g. "How shall we test this?", "How shall we estimate this?", etc.).

You could also try (in theory: I haven't tried this myself) phrasing your statements as a question, for example, "I think we should do such-and-such. Or is there maybe a better way?"

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It is a difficulty many of us in IT face.

I would pick up a copy of Dale Carnegie's How to win friends and influence people. There is an entire section that addresses this problem.

What you have to understand is that in addition to getting your point across, you need to allow others to save face. If you ask questions like "Well, how do you think that will work within the context of the project", is better than saying. NO! That won't work, we need to do it THIS way. The former keeps people engaged, the latter slams down the lid on the discussion.

Also, stick only to details that are necessary. If it works or does not work, only enough to justify the position is necessary. It sounds like you're very detail oriented, which is not a bad thing, but it can be intimidating when you can list 182 reasons why something is not the case, when five would do. (I tend to do this myself, so I know of what I speak).

Also, ask for feedback from your team BEFORE it gets to be review time. Check yourself before others check you, but do it sincerely as in "Well, sorry if I was a bit pushy today, but I really do value your opinions, even if it doesn't always seem that way." Make the occasional joke at your own expense when you catch yourself being too aggressive like "Well, there I go again, sorry".

This will help you with those soft skills that nobody can define, but everyone likes.

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As Lilenthal mentioned in his comment, I think the best approach to this (and one that I have personally used to great effect), is to just be open and honest with your colleagues about your personality, your style of discussion, and what you mean when you act in certain ways. I tend to be of the opinion that there is no better way to fix a problem than with your words.

For me this means that when I get into a new work place I make sure that the people I interact with a lot know that I debate things very vigorously and will not shy away from sharing a dissenting opinion. I also tell them up front that I am of the philosophy that Lilenthal mentioned, "Strong opinions held weakly", which is to say that I will argue my side strongly and I hope that others argue their sides just as strongly, but I am totally willing to be shown to be wrong, and if I am, my opinion will change.

In my last job, I had frequent debates with the other developers on my team about how to best approach a problem, what the best practice was in certain situations, etc. These discussions occasionally became somewhat heated. However, I was careful to keep in mind a few things.

  1. I made sure the discussions didn't cross the line into being disrespectful. Although some people might feel disrespected just because of the heat of the discussion, I never attacked someone personally or said anything that I would regret later
  2. I made sure only to engage in these discussions with people that I knew understood and appreciated that kind of discourse. There were others that I employed a different tactic with, which was much slower, calmer discussion, and there were some senior colleagues that I learned not to have these discussions with because they felt like it was disrespectful for a junior developer to question them at all
  3. I changed my mind when I was wrong. I think a lot of people say, "I will totally change my mind if I'm wrong", but very few people actually do it. Once people see that you are truthful about having "strong beliefs held weakly" they trust that you are discussing things in good faith

I hope that these ideas are helpful and that you learn how to express yourself in a way that is both true to who you are and appreciated by your colleagues

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I've +1'd several points, but I need to emphasize something that's only mentioned in passing or that's actually dismissed in some answers:

How you interact with teammates is the most important thing you do in your career. I say this because I've suffered multiple times from exactly what you describe: being too aggressive in discussions. It has marginalized me and burned me in the past, and I'm still not great at it, but after many years I'm finally getting it. (For perspective, I'm speaking as someone born and working in the U.S., so not considering cross-cultural issues.)

I don't know if you think as I did, but I felt, "Hey, if your idea is a good idea, you'll defend it vigorously and I will for my idea, and once we've both done our best, the best answer will emerge." I am also the kind of guy who loves ideas, and this personality trait means I can talk about an issue -- and enjoy it, and learn from it -- long after many folks in the room are bored or frustrated to death. And they'll interpret it as me being stubborn.

Another factor you need to consider is if you're new to a company/project you need to really throttle the urge to criticize what's already been done. Again, this has taken me a long time to learn, but as I've been on more and more projects I've found that most of the time an enthusiastic newcomer starts throwing out "new" ideas and criticisms, they don't realize we've tried (or at least considered) the ideas already, or that the project has evolved with political and other constraints that didn't allow us to do those things.

Not to say that being skilled and smart aren't valuable attributes. I've also seen things fail because the nice teammate can't pull their own weight. But how well your ideas are received, how often people want to work with you, how much voice you have in your organization will hinge on how you interact with those around you. And raising the temperature in the room -- even if that's not your goal -- will work against you again and again.

Specific suggestions:

  1. First, try to understand what the actual issue is. Perhaps you and someone else are using the same word to mean two different things. Perhaps the other person is concerned with some issues you're not aware of. Perhaps you both have reasonable approaches. Dig into this, using all of your skills.

  2. Work hard to check yourself and your attitude. It's easy to dismiss apparently inferior alternatives with language that you don't mean to be over-the-top, but that is disrespectful. You may view it as a clash of ideas, but if the ideas are espoused by two different people, you're always one step away from making it a clash of personalities or values.

  3. It's easy to get excited and passionate about tech stuff and ideas. This pumps up the emotional energy in the room, which can be good if it's good excitement, or bad because it becomes anger or disdain. It's very hard, but try to step outside of yourself and see "Hey, I'm getting a bit heated here."

  4. Don't dismiss "soft", "fuzzy" or "people" skills. When you're young, you may think that intellect and skill should win the day, and soft skills are for salesmen and managers. You're an engineer! Turns out that's completely wrong. For example, I now work at a smaller company and interview people and the first thought in my head is "Would I want to work with this person?", and the second is "Are they good?" I won't recommend hiring someone who is going to make me more work (because they're not good), to be sure, but I also won't recommend hiring someone who is going to add stress to their teammates. The customer and deadlines will do enough of that.

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I'm seeing that most answers are providing examples of this without naming it.

Step 1: ASK QUESTIONS - The best way to keep a verbal exchange neutral is to ask flat questions. 'Flat' meaning that these should not have attitude, or intonation that would imply sarcasm, judgement, or anything outside what the literal question would be asking. These questions should be asked in a way as to show that you are genuine in seeking information.

"Did you try this?" "What do you think about X?" "How did you come to that conclusion?" "What would happen if..." "Will this work?" "Could I propose something?" Etc.

Step 2: LISTEN TO THE ANSWER - otherwise don't bother asking a question.

Step 3: REPEAT - Once you have the input you were looking for, ask additional questions. It's surprising how easily a conversation can be steered doing this, and you won't come across as being overly aggressive.

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Either wait until someone else makes a suggestion. Sometimes you'll end up being the first. I think key points here would be to recommend getting more suggestions before getting into any indepth discussion on your solution and definitely before you start defending your position.

Many technologists are passionate about what they do and the suggesting they make. We take pride in our ability to come up with answers. If I'm going to give an answer, I usually think it is a good one or I'll say I'm not sure. I can come across too strong to some people. The goal is to make sure you allow others a chance to give input. During a meeting, if you feel like too much time may be placed on debating your solution, suggest a separate meeting be scheduled and those that want to discuss it further could attend.

Give your suggestions. Allow for others to make their suggestions. Be aware of how much time you're taking up during meetings.

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I think you can improve this by focusing more on the people, taking in the overall situation & pausing before going to the quick counterarguments

Overall, it sounds like your colleagues do value your opinions, but that they think you take it too far in the way you try to get your opinion across. So, you don't need to change your whole personality or anything, but you might be more effective if you give your views clearly & concisely, then pause for a bit, instead of automatically getting into the back-and-forth

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Some techniques I try to follow to avoid being too aggressive in group discussions:

1) One the one hand, I find that my willingness to speak up can often break the ice and help other people start talking.

2) However, once the ice is broken, I try to remember to let other people talk and express their views. If I'm talking more than my equal "share" (50% in a two person situation, 33% with three people, 25% with four, 10% with ten people, etc) then I am probably talking too much.

3) If I disagree, I try not to lead with contradictions. Instead I ask questions to make sure that I completely understand the other person's position and why they feel that way, and then I restate their position and ask "do I have it right?" Only once I completely understand their position do I express an alternate opinion. This way they know that have been understood and can have an easier time digesting my disagreement, and not just immediately assuming I'm being contradictory.

4) Trust in the wisdom of the group to arrive at the best decision in the end. The best decision isn't always the most efficient or profitable (or the one you prefer). And it may take the group some trial and error to get things right over time. Its ok; there's power in groups of people working together. It's better to choose an 80% solution that a whole group can work on and achieve together than a 90-100% perfect solution that causes deep discord and never gets accomplished due to group dysfunction.

Hope some of those ideas help.

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"Dragging out discussions" is a horrible thing. One colleague of mine suffers with a coworker having that habit. Sitting not far away, I can hear what they are discussing, and I think "my god, why are you even discussing this? What you are arguing about (and that guy just won't let go) is of so little importance in the greater scheme of things". I feel exhausted just from overhearing things, I feel sorry for my poor colleague, who is extremely nice, and extremely knowledgable.

So yes, "dragging out discussions" is one of the worst habits that you can have. If you ever actually have a good idea, people will strongly resist it, because they got to the point where there is no way they will ever give in to you.

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