SPIN, DEARMAN and Integrity

Last weekend I attended an afternoon convention for professional software testers, which seems to be the career I have fallen into… I think critical scientific and heuristic thinking combined with a fairly devastating ability to find weaknesses in complex systems (biological, political, battle strategy and tactics and now software) would lead to that. That, or terrorism…

Anyway, I attended an interesting talk on a technique for communicating needs for change to someone who could help but might not agree. It was summarised by the mnemonic SPIN, which stands for:

 – Situation – what I see
– Problem – why I care
– Implication – why the one I’m talking to should care
– Need – what I think we should do (this can be opened up for general discussion if you really don’t know)

Following this technique, one gives all the relevant information and motivates the listener to act in everyone’s best interest, which is rational.

The word “spin” itself has some connotations of biased representation of data, like we expect from the media and politicians. The technique is biased from the petitioners perspective:

 – the petitioner might not have the full information, therefore what they see might not be the whole picture, or even contain all the relevant pieces
– that the petitioner cares does not mean that other people have the same problem or that it is any of their business – I have made this mistake myself, overstepping the boundaries of program testing to project management, for example. PM’s should not tell testers how to test, and testers should not tell PM’s their job, either…
– telling someone why they should care is fraught with issues of being patronising, telling them how to do their job, and anyone who knows these techniques can see they are being “managed” which can trigger some negative reactions to manipulation or lack of respect, justified or not
– the petitioner might have all the info and still not have the best solution, or even a solution that follows from the situation (as conclusions follow from premises). They might not like the solution that the one appealed to comes up with.

Putting that aside, I was reminded of the DBT (Dialectic Behavioural Therapy) technique for appealing to someone for a change (in their behaviour, usually), known by the mnemonic DEARMAN:

 – Describe – the situation, as above
– Express – how it makes you feel when the situation happens; this is sort of like the problem, from above, but makes it more subjective, and therefore less arguable
– Assert – what you want; your need, from above
– Reinforce – why they would want this, too; implication, from above
– Mindful – staying on topic, one issue at a time, and not getting distracted by excuses
– Appear confident OR no Apologies (depending where you look) – people don’t listen to you if you don’t appear to stand for what you’re saying
– Negotiate – keeping in mind that you don’t know everything

I have rather more time for this approach, as it more clearly puts the ownership of the alleged issue with the petitioner, gives some good advice for the manner in which one should make the petition and negotiate it, and the mnemonic is more respectful.

BUT… Both SPIN and DEARMAN have two common unspoken pre-requisites: that the listener cares to make things work, for themselves (rational) and the petitioner, and that they can actually do something to bring about the petitioner’s required change. I have found, in both personal and business relationships, that these are not always the case, and no matter how well you make your case, and how important it is, it will bring about no change. Some people do not play well with others, or just cannot effect change. (You have to go around them, if you can.) Humans in general are notoriously bad at acting rationally. I found DEARMAN can sometimes be very disappointing in the real world.

Then I saw a very interesting YouTube clip about professional interpersonal relations. (I’m sorry – I forgot to get the reference when I saw it – I just made some notes of bits that resonated). The presenter encouraged me to believe the following:

 – Self: I have some information, but I may not see or understand everything
– Other person:
– may see things that I don’t see which could help
– is acting with integrity given their situation
– Task: combine our knowledge to make the best choice

So first we select and describe the problem, as above, but then, when we explain, evaluate and propose actions we have to remember we are working on assumptions.

The “acting with integrity” clause hit me like a wet fish. Really? I myself do always try to act with integrity, and I don’t always agree with the ideas of others, even given the same information and good incentives. The word “integrity” does make me reconsider the position of people who are challenging to work with: they could be right, for one thing. Even when they are apparently only gate-keeping, throwing up obstacles to progress, protecting their territory and other such non-productive behaviour: while they are being difficult, even sometimes unprofessional, their situation could be the real problem. How much stress are they under? What are they frightened of? What are their obstacles to change? Can I help them to help myself?

In reality, commonly you can’t. Their situation is causing a problem for them, and it might be that there is no-one who can help them, or maybe they have to SPIN or DEARMAN someone themselves, and then we have to hope that someone at the end of the chain of needs starts a domino effect of necessary change.


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