Oredev: Alex Harms – Careful With Those People Skills

Credit: Flickr / sⓘndy°

My notes from a talk Alex Harms gave at Oredev.

People skills are seen as easy, we call them “soft skills”. Going to talk about the hardest things, as honestly as can.

I don’t know any version of people skills that will make you not a colossal jerk. I am a colossal jerk, and I suspect that the person come up as “enlightened” like Oprah or Ekhart Tole, suspect they can be colossal jerks as well. Don’t imagine even the Dali Llama is perfect and never acts like an idiot, never gets afraid and yells at the people he loves.

Part of being human, not about being beatific. People we program with and have to work with every day are humans.

“Humans” – produced before the invention of women (“or clothes”).

Humans have things in common, want certain things: connection, be creative, experiment and learn things.

“Before you can love another you must first love yourself” – appears on inspirational calendars. Comes across as sappy, meaningless advice, but think it’s actually key.

Heard: “use I statements”

What do we want with people skills?

  • Communicate better – to collaborate and get things done.

Comes from a  good place, “10 ways to improve your people skills” blog posts. If you think people skills can get you off the hook, it’s not gonna get you off the hook. Going for human connection, hear them, be heard by them.

Talk about your own experience – a lot easier for them to hear you. We make up stuff in our mind, create judgement.

I statement and request: “I feel kind of scared when I hear you yelling… could you not do this”. Not phrase whatever you want with the word “I” at the beginning.

Heard: Express Appreciation.

E.g. shit sandwich. This is inauthentic appreciation. Totally useless. Might get your way for a while, but then form distrust. If project only a week long you can get away with “people skills”, then people learn what you are like.

Try actually appreciating. Listen to how you are feeling, and express it, with gratitude.

Not intended to manipulate.

Heard: Ask powerful questions.

Powerful questions create disconnect from people… response “in the absence of curiosity”. But in the absence of curiosity, maybe you should go and get some curiosity.

If you leave with that, ability to get curious about another person, will at least change your day.

Follow your curiosity. Care about their experience. Ask questions to draw it out.

Heard: be a good listener.

Make eye contact. Don’t interrupt. Wait your turn.

People who when they listen, the whole world disappears.

Learn to listen with your whole self. Be curious. Check your understanding. Ask questions that serve them.

Heard: Assume good intentions.

Not sure you can assume good intentions. Some people surprised to hear that. There are people who want to hurt you, cut you down, make you feel small because it makes them feel big.

Always a way to look beneath what is going on and find a way that we are the same.

Come to see everyone’s behaviour as some kind of need that can understand.

Bully is scared, trying to feel safe. Trying to feel good enough. Get that.

Don’t get that if “assume good intentions”, saying “don’t think they meant anything by that” means “I don’t need to deal with their pain”.

Heard: Smile

Week long, maybe you can get by with that. Smiling interesting. People who smile a lot, feel safe around them, then something is happening, or they are mad, ask “what would it take to make you not smile”.

Want to know what is going on.

Try being vulnerable.

If you do that, when you’re smiling people know you are feeling kind of joy. Can trust you.

People much more willing to put up with non-smiling at work.

Develop trust that allows for full person to be present. Valuable.

Heard: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”

A lot like smiling. There’s a way to distinguish authenticity from attack.

If you can figure out what is going on in your heart, and express that, you can find a way to be heard. If making up stories in your head…

If you learn to say the real thing.

Heard: ask permission.

Before giving people advice. Ask permission gets taken as “get permission” then you can do what you want. Because you did the “polite thing”.

“You’re not asking permission unless the person can say no.”

Police say “it’s okay if I come in” – not asking for permission.

Politeness pattern. Sales people will say things to cause you to say yes.

Ask permission, be curious, actually mean it. Let them say no. Real connection.

Hard Stuff

What do People Want? …what do you want?

Want to belong.

Want to be happy.

Want to contribute.

Profluence. Sense of making some progress before a goal. Thing that developers don’t have when you make them go to meetings all the time.


Freedom from fear. Shame.

Talking about these things in a room full of geeks who maybe don’t talk about those things very often. Stuff we all have in common.

The obnoxious jerk on your team, they want those things too.

People who can’t step into a session like this one, who also want these kind of things.


Ability to see in the other person what is the same as in you. See past what is driving them, into what is really going on.

Always things that are going on that don’t know about. See commonalities. Make an actual connection.

What do I actually want?

To not be a jerk.

To not have to deal with jerks.

Unfortunately: we’re all jerks. We all get scared. We all get angry.

Learn to make a connection when we have created distance. People are beautiful things, don’t like stomping on them.

Went on a quest to discover the power of love. 

Has to come from inside, you gotta be the one that brings it. If you want to be more compassionate, you have to be more compassionate.

Question everything. If you want to get good at compassion and empathy, start questioning everything.

WTF means “I am curious about what is going on here”. People think it is an attack. Make that flip from judgement to curiosity. Then you can find on what’s happening.

Distinguish what’s happening from you’re idea’s about what’s happening.

What part is real? What are you making up?

Making up wall between you and the other person, not finding out who they really are. Everyone has a story.

Notice how your emotions vary with those ideas.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”

First thought WTF, makes no sense. Realised creating ideas of right and wrong in head find another place to go to.

Which is hard. It’s not easy. If it was easy, it’d be like “10 people skills”. But that doesn’t work. Because people.

So what do you do when you’re angry? Think of anger as a secondary emotion that protects us from other things. 

Before you can love another, you must first love yourself.

The scariest thing. If going to be empathetic and not judge people around you. Some people who seem to be good, some people seem to be not good. There’s one person about whom I know everything.

When holding people up to those standards, know everything that I do. If holding people up to those standards and not empathise, I will be the first one to go down.

Or can be delusional and just judge everyone else. Only works until you spend time with yourself.

If going to empathise with people have to start with yourself.

Gratitude. Figure out what you’re actually grateful for, what you’re actually joyful.

“Trade your expectation for appreciation, and the world changes instantly.”

Congruence – the state of being who you are in the world, instead of allowing yourself to be someone else. Being fully you.

Carl Rogers: “3 conditions for therapeutic change: Congruence, empathy and unconditional positive regard.”

Brene Brown: “… vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you, and the last thing I’m willing to show you…”

Marshall Rosenberg: “When we understand the needs that motivate our own and other’s behaviour, we have no enemies”.

Courage is curiosity. Open yourself up to what is really happening.

Pema Chödrön: “Maitri – loving-kindness – has to go very deep because when you practise it, you’re going to see everything about yourself.”

Make mistakes. Risk being seen. Forgive (yourself, too). make yourself into a living, breathing antidote to shame. Make some real connections.