Writing to People

Communication is hard. It involves people, and no two people are the same. This is a story about how I continue to learn to communicate better in writing.

At Vinted, we use GitHub and pull requests. Pull requests tells others about changes. They allow to discuss and review potential changes before they go into production. Almost every code change goes through a pull request at Vinted.

I’ve participated heavily in code reviews on pull requests. I am improvement and detail oriented. And that’s putting it mildly. I wrote comments about each out of place comma, as per our agreed code style (that’s before existence of Pronto). I would also write very direct suggestions on how to improve code. No emojis, no maybes, just “Extract this into a method.”.

Try to imagine. You worked very hard. You opened a pull request. 30 minutes later you were bombarded with dozens of comments by @mmozuras. Being on a receiving end of such a public bombardment can be a misery. It can be amplified if you’ve had an awful morning. Or your car broke down. Or your sick child kept you up at night.

My intentions were good. I wanted us to improve. I thought that being direct and terse with my writing is the best way to achieve that. The good thing is that people usually didn’t think I was mean or arrogant. Usually. Sometimes people would get demotivated and an unnecessary emotional conflict would be ignited.

At first, I thought that it doesn’t matter. I decided it’s their problem. Why do they think I’m mean or arrogant? I was wrong. I should not have judged others before first looking at my own behavior.

I’ve started to make my suggestions sound like suggestions. Instead of “Extract this into a method.”, I would write “Have you considered extracting this into a method? Here’s how it would look: … It’s more readable. What do you think?”. A bit more effort, but a much better result. No demotivation. No unnecessary emotional conflicts.

I’ve learned to use emojis to convey my emotion, as suggested by a friend. One smile in the right place can make the whole post sound different. “Have you considered extracting this into a method? 🤔”. That little smile conveys I’m thinking, disarms the possible interpretation of sarcasm.

My comments on pull requests became more effective. I’ve used the same advice to improve other kinds of comments, internal posts, and Slack messages. My positive intentions started to be better reflected in what I write.

But that’s not the end of the story.

I also write emails. As Head of Engineering, these days more than before. While I improved, I would still get negative reactions to my emails. Most recently, a month ago.

My colleague introduced a potential problem and a way that the problem will be solved. It was just an informational email, not asking for participation. I thought I can add value by participating. So, I wrote an email. I tersely outlined how I view the situation. It was not meant as a critique, but it was taken as such by some people in the email thread. If you think that you presented a good plan, agreed on that plan with your team, receiving a response can sound critical.

Email conversations usually happen with people I don’t converse with daily or even weekly. Through Crucial Conversations, I learned to establish mutual purpose. To make sure that others understand that I’m working towards a common outcome, care about their goals and values.

I’ve also noticed that my most direct and terse emails were addressed to leaders senior to me. I did it without thinking. Upon reflection, I probably thought that they can take it. I expected them to be better than me. I expected them to see through my terseness. I was wrong. They are people too.

I try not to forget that. When I write to someone, it’s not an inbox at the other end. There’s a person. I still write everything that I want to write. I am as critical and as open as ever. The difference is in how I write it. My suggestions sound like suggestions, I convey my positive emotions better and I establish mutual purpose.