From conversation today:

  • Caveat: cis straight white dude in tech. there’s better advice for people who might be experiencing racism, sexism, transphobia, etc (LINKS)

  • A situation’s fucked up. Somebody is mad/disappointed at someone else. How do you know if it’s a you or them problem?

    • “Describe what the camera would see” (SBI: B
    • Context of situation (SBI: S)
    • Who has more knowledge? Who has more power? Who should be responsible for a thing going well?
    • If you were to go back and change one thing to make the situation, would it be your behavior or theirs?
    • Are expectations reasonable? Were they communicated ahead of time?
    • You aren’t responsible for other peoples’ emotions
    • Who said what? Keep notes, write things down. Easier to distance yourself and understand (SBI: SB)

LOTUS COMMENT: so i think something that might resonate easier / flow more naturally is a ‘what is conflict’ > example sequence and example past scenarios > ‘what to do in conflict’ > understand situation > different options of how to think about it, then distill down into specifically the ‘is this me or them’ > break down how to do it “answering the question” > what to do about it

Is this a me problem, or a them problem?

Software engineering is a job where the best-performing teams collaborate heavily. Because all the dependencies between parts of the code or system being built require you to rely on your coworkers. So the best performing teams spend a lot of time talking, and writing, internally and externally. And this level of constant communication, using lossy human languages, means misunderstandings are frequent. I’m not even addressing how failible everybody is; even the top performers make mistakes all the time.

Conflicts are common in this kind of environment!

Conflicts aren’t necessarily a straight up person-to-person argument. They can be more subtle than that. The most common conflict I can remember is somebody not respecting someone else’s opinion. The person being disrespected isn’t necessarily speaking up in the moment, or counterattacking. Many people are taken aback when someone we’re trying to work with is being a jerk to us, and aren’t ready to fight back in the moment.

I think I get along with people pretty well, but that I’ve still been in a lot of conflicts in my career. And I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand “is this a me problem or a them problem?” before I knew what to do.

This essay has some strategies on how to answer that question.

What to do with the answer

Understanding whose problem this is isn’t about assigning blame. There’s no Universal Blame score we’re all trying to optimize for.

It’s about figuring out who benefits most from changing behavior. Because conflicts repeat themselves. Which of the people involved are going to actively cause this type of conflict again in the future? That’s the person who, best case, can learn what’s going on and modify their habits to drive down conflict frequency or amplitude.

If it’s a me problem, then this is probably a growth opportunity for me!

  • Maybe I’m taking offense from something that I shouldn’t. If I know that, I can avoid getting riled up in the future.
  • Maybe I’m doing something that’s upsetting the other person. In that case, that same behavior will probably bother others, and I can figure out how to avoid doing the same thing to them and my other coworkers. This could be as simple as better word choice, or it could be a fundamental blind spot that I need to be aware of and try to manage.

If it’s a them problem, then I can stop doubting myself, and worrying that I’m doing something wrong. You usually can’t change people, but you can give them feedback, or escalate to their manager, or just come up with coping strategies to avoid repeats of the situation. If nothing else, I can weather the conflict better in the future, because I can tell myself “oh it’s X, back on their bullshit.”

What matters here is understanding what’s going on. I don’t want to keep dealing with this same conflict forever, and I need to know the best way to avoid the next iteration.

Conflicts I’ve had

Here is a small sampling of past (work) conflicts I’ve had:

  • A more senior engineer ignoring my feedback while we partnered on a project
  • A junior engineer on my team constantly dismissing or arguing with my advice
  • My new manager giving me a bad performance review for shipping too slowly
  • New hires elsewhere in the company, persistently messaging my team for months that our entire plan needed to change
  • Every code review I left for a particular coworker seemed to turn into a comment battle

Conflict sequence

All these situations follow a rough sequence.

emoji representation of the following sequence

  1. I get riled up: some combo of sad, angry, guilty, or afraid. Fight-or-flight reactions might happen, or other physiological responses to conflict.
  2. After I can calm down, I work to figure out who’s (most) right: me or them?
  3. I develop a plan what I’m going to do, now that I understand (2).

Understanding the situation

(I’m going to skip the “how to calm down” part - use whatever works for you. Take a walk, or read a book, or play video games. But I don’t trust my own judgement when I’m really amped up, so I try to feel okay before I try to think too hard.)

Thinking about a situation where it’s you-vs-someone, you will always take your own side. You have to be able to describe the problem from the outside to view it dispassionately. Convincing yourself is too easy, and you should be a little skeptical of yourself.

Describe what a camera would see

I love SBI (Situation-Behavior-Impact) as a framework for feedback, but also for general understanding. In particular the idea of “describing what a camera would see” is super useful - you and everyone else can share a common frame of reference. Finding that common ground with others is vital.

Use 4 of the 5 Whys - who, when, where, and what.

  • Who’s involved in the conflict? This can be more than just the folks actively participating - are others in the room looking uncomfortable?
  • Where did the conflict take place? E.g. a meeting room, a doc comment thread? Maybe multiple places?
  • When did it happen? Was this a single event, or is it a series of things happening? (In the case of my bad performance review example: this is “the last few months of my work”)
  • What was specifically said or done, and by who?

Note: Don’t try to answer why for other people! Ascribing intent to others is a good way to get things wrong, in a way that escalates a conflict. Hell, sometimes it’s the root cause of conflicts. Pay attention to when you’re doing it, and stop.

Find reference points

A strategy I use constantly is comparing situations that went well, avoiding conflicts, with situations that triggered them. What was different about these situations?

Maybe I used some different words between A and B, or maybe somebody else did. Did we skip an important part in the doc or conversation? Have I worked more with X than Y, and so the levels of automatic trust are higher?

Is there a pattern of conflict that you find yourself in, or the other person does? Is this conflict unusual for you, or them?

Outside stress can cause people to react differently to otherwise unremarkable input. Is something unusual going on in somebody’s life?

Ask a third party

Describe what occurred to friends, or old coworkers who aren’t in the same team/company. Find someone you trust to give it to you straight - ideally somebody who’s been direct with you about mistakes you’ve made in the past. If you can trust someone to tell you it’s a you problem, it means you can probably trust them to tell you it’s the other person’s problem.

This isn’t to get sympathy - it’s totally fine to vent to people, and for them to automatically take your side. Do that separately.

The goal here is to get a more impartial opinion than you can easily have yourself. Make sure that when you’re talking to this person you are saying something like “I want your take on whether this is me or them.” Describe what the camera would have seen, and then let them ask questions and drive the conversation.

Write things down, and fact-check yourself

Write down your story of what’s happened. Don’t try to be too impartial; mix in what happened with the impact of the situation. How’d you feel? How’d others feel, from what they said or their expressions?

Now you have your own mental narrative, and you can compare that against what physically actually happened.

I’ve seen this work wonders with people mad about Slack conversations or other written conflicts. Because you have the full transcript of what was said, by whom, and you can compare the text of the situation with your perceived tone. I’ve gotten so mad at people for being jerks on Slack, only to calm down and reread what they said, and realize I’m wrong. Because my past negative interactions with those people colored how I read everything they said.

Consider power dynamics

This is something that’s become more and more important to me as my career has progressed, and I’ve gotten more implicit and explicit power. My words are weighted more heavily than somebody just starting out at the company, or in software. And they mostly should be! I have more experiences to pattern-match against, and a ton more technical and people skills that I’ve accumulated.

But this means I have more responsibility, too. A conflict between peers is very different than between me, and say an intern. Even if they start a conflict, de-escalation and mitigation are my responsibility more than theirs.

This doesn’t just affect the “ok what do I do about it” part of dealing with a conflict, but also the “whose problem is this?” question.

Answering the question: me or them?

There are too many permutations of conflicts to give some sort of one-size-fits-all flowchart. Instead, you’ll need to have multiple different strategies to exercise, that can help you have confidence in one answer or the other.