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"That word makes my blood boil."


It’s one of the worst four-letter words I know. Whenever I catch myself using it, I stop and apologize. And when I hear it, I hold up my hand and stop the person speaking.

Let me give you some examples from last week…

  • “Just put a form up to collect their e-mail…”
  • “Just make it so they can log in with Facebook…”
  • “I’ll just throw it in a new database field.”
  • “We can just launch a new database server…”
  • “Let’s just let them post notes like Twitter does…”

A synonym I often hear is “simply.”

  • “Let’s simply use Redis for this…”
  • “We’ll only spin up another AWS server…
  • “It should be simple to reuse the Atlas library for that.”

If you use the words “just” or “simply,” you might have forgotten how hard the technical details can be. I cover how to fix this in Chapter 2 of my book, 7 Habits that Ruin your Technical Team. Or, you might be pushing the team too hard, and glossing over the details. That’s covered in Chapter 5 of the book.

But what if you’re not saying it, but you hear it?

Then it’s time to stop the conversation and politely ask for the missing details. This used to be hard for me because it made me feel like I was asking “stupid” questions. For many years I felt that if I asked people to explain what they meant, I’d look dumb. Or unprofessional. Or I’d be wasting their time.

I finally realized that professionals aren’t content with generalities or vague requirements. They stop and ask for specifics, even at the risk of looking dumb. They have the confidence to know they aren’t stupid and not to pretend to understand something they don’t.

You can use phrases like…

  • “Let’s pause so I can clarify what you mean. Are you suggesting that we…”
  • “Wait, before we continue, can you explain that feature more?”
  • “Going back to what you said, can you explain how you would implement that?”
  • “I might be a bit slow here, but can you explain?”

My boss, Milind, was great at this. When I was promoted to Team Lead, I was brought into a whole new world of meetings and discussions, and I would keep my mouth shut when someone used the word “Just,” or spoke in vague terms. I didn’t want someone to think I wasn’t fit for the job, or that I was having trouble keeping up. Instead, I nodded and smiled, looking like I was tracking with them.

But Milind knew it was dangerous to accept generalities or misunderstandings. He would simply stop a large group conversation with the phrase, “Maybe I’m missing something here, but can you explain that in more detail?” Everyone would look at him; the speaker would pause, and then back up to cover the “just” part in more detail.

And low and behold, 90% of the time it was revealed that the person who glossed over the details had oversimplified something important. Or, was simply wrong about an assumption. That means 90% of the time we were able to correct the discussion at the moment and move forward with better information.

And the 10% of the time there wasn’t a problem? The explanation simply clarified everyone’s understanding, and we quickly moved forward. Or, it opened the door to other unspoken questions from the group.

Watching Milind do this made me feel confident enough to try it. Now I do it often, as really understanding what someone is telling me is the most important thing. It allows me to correct misunderstandings and assumptions at the moment, instead of wasting time working in the wrong direction.

Now it’s your turn.
How often do you hear the word “just” or “simply,” and just nod in agreement?
How could you pause the conversation and to more information, or correct someone’s assumption?

About Marcus Blankenship

Where other technical coaches focus on process or tools, I focus on the human aspects of your Programmer to Manager transition. I help you hire the right people, create the right culture, and setup the right process which achieves your goals. Managing your team isn't something you learned in college. In fact, my clients often tell me "I never prepared for this role, I always focused on doing the work". If you're ready to improve your leadership, process and team, find out how I can help you.

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