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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg

I recently finished reading Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg, and thought it would be worth putting forth a few comments.

It was recommended to me by a colleague who pointed out that my use of language on my blog (and perhaps in person) was "confrontational." At least, that's how I'll paraphrase their comment. I admit, I'm often a fan of hyperboles and metaphores, and I like having an "in your face" style or writing. I've always said that I will back down if I'm wrong - just as long as you can show me where I'm wrong, which can be construed as an aggressive way to go through life, and was probably what prompted my colleague to raise their concerns.

Anyhow, I took this book out from the library a couple weeks ago, and I've been slowly digesting it. I hadn't realized that there was a version available online (see the link above), but I'm glad it's there for future reference. I had to return the book last night, and ended up reading the last 60 pages in a rush.

With that said, I should probably make my first comment on the book: I skipped a few paragraphs here and there. My overall feeling of the book is that it would be well delivered as a motivational talk, but the translation to book format left me feeling unimpressed with the style. I often felt like I was reading a transcript from a motivational speaker - which is not quite the same as seeing it in person. That's not a comment on the contents - just that I felt that a book is really not the ideal media for this particular message.

That said, the contents were interesting: The author clearly knows what he's talking about and is able to walk you slowly through the process. When distilled to it's bare minimum, you can divide language into good and bad methods of communication.

The good:
  1. Speaking of Observations to express facts.
  2. Describing Feelings to express impact of observations
  3. Describing Needs, which underlay feelings and impact of observations
  4. Making Requests to indicate what you would like to happen.
The Bad:
  1. Making Judgments or interpretations of observations that are not neutral
  2. Inappropriately assigning Blame for actions, muddling motivations or creating scapegoats for actions.
  3. Being Unclear or Vague about Observations, Needs, Feelings and Requests. (If you don't get it right, you're not any better of than you were before.)
  4. Making Demands, and no one enjoys being told what to do.
Of course, the author is never this concise about what he's trying to teach you, and the above is my own interpretation. What the author does, instead, is walk you through a myriad of examples of each one, showing it in theory, in abstract, in practice and in a situation you might encounter. Overall, it's helpful to have these examples and they are really the best reason to sit down and read the book. I found myself skipping over much of discussion to zoom into his "anecdotes", which were really informative and entertaining.

That said, I'm not going to claim to have distilled out all of the value of this book. In fact, my breakdown of the book above probably won't make much sense without the context in which the author places them. There are also a lot of tips scattered throughout the book that are very useful for improving your communication skills. My favorite is "when you would like someone to change their behaviors, tell them what to do, not what not to do." Another enjoyable part of the book is the chapter where he reflects on how to turn his communication style inward to look at how we do our internal communication, which was really insightful to me as well.

One other thing that I need to clearly state about this book is that I felt the book was really just scratching the surface of it's topic. The constant and underlying message in this book has to do with communication through empathizing with people around you - how to be a good listener and to understand what people are telling you. Unfortunately, I felt that there was a lot more to this element of his method than what the author was willing to discuss. As a scientist, I always love the gory details of how the mind works and would have enjoyed a bit more depth on the subject. Overall, I'm left with the impression that the author believes that if you apply the communication style, you'll learn to be more empathetic and to express your emotions more clearly - and understand those of the people around you better. I often found myself wondering if the opposite approach might be more effective, although I can see how that would be much more difficult to encapsulate into a book.

Anyhow, to conclude, I think this book is worth a read. I wasn't a fan of the style of the book, and found the author dwelled too long each point, but I found it to be an insightful and helpful book overall. I might even rank it as inspirational, within its genre.

How much did I get out of it? That's a good question. I'll start blogging again this week, and people are more than welcome to comment on whether they notice a change in my tone. (-:


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Biopartnering North and a short break

First off, if anyone is going to BioPartnering North 2010 this week in Vancouver, I'll be there, and would be very happy to talk genomics/biotech and business with you. I was lucky enough to have been found worthy of one of the coveted BIOTECanada bursaries to attend the event, and I plan to get as much out of it as I can. I'll be at the reception tonight, and undoubtedly I'll be around throughout the next few days. (And, if you were wondering, I won't be blogging any talks from BPN.)

Second, I'm pretty sure everyone has noticed that my blogging output has dropped significantly since December, for which there are several good reasons. The first is that I've been quite busy. My personal life is now occupied by event planning, while my work life has been dominated by several major projects, of which I will undoubtedly be "ranting" about in posts in the near future.

However (and thirdly), the other reason I've not been blogging much is that I also had a conversation with a colleague in december about effective communications. He suggested I read a book on "Non-violent communication." I'm working my way through it slowly, and have taken a few suggestions to heart. It's always possible to become a better communicator and, to that end, I'm on a small hiatus while I re-evaluate my use of language. It won't last long - I like having a blog and I'm already itching to write a few more posts, but it's an opportunity to do some personal development.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Symposium: Advances in Bioinformatics and Genomics - Feb 19, 2010

I just came across a forum that I hadn't heard of before: The 2nd Advances in Bioinformatics and Genomics Symposium, being held in the San Francisco/Bay area in February. Unfortunately, like AGBT, it's been scheduled to overlap with the Olympics. Now, normally I don't care about things overlapping with Olympic events, but this year travel in and out of Vancouver will be a nightmare, and I'm not willing to go through that twice. (Especially for a single day symposium.)

Regardless, if people are leaving from other destinations, or already happen to be in the bay area, this "open access" conference sounds pretty neat. The full schedule isn't up yet - and I have to admit I don't know either of the keynote speakers (my ignorance of the field, I'm sure), but the summary seems to fit my interests pretty well - and likely those of other people who read my blog.

Here's the link:

There's always next year, I suppose. (=


Thursday, January 14, 2010

How to be a better Programmer: Tactics.

I'm a bit too busy for a long post, but a link was circulating around the office that I thought was worth passing on to any bioinformaticians out there.

The article above is on how to be a better programmer - and I wholeheartedly agree with what the author proposed, with one caveat that I'll get to in a minute. The point of the the article is that learning to see the big picture (not specific skills) will make you a better programmer. In fact, this is the same advice Sun Tzu gives in "The Art of War", where understanding the terrain, the enemy, etc are the tools you need to be a better general. [This would be in contrast to learning how to wield each weapon, which would only make you a better warrior.] Frankly, it's good advice, and this leads you down the path towards good planning and clear thinking - the keys to success in most fields.

The caveat, however, is that there are times in your life where this is the wrong approach: ie. grad school. As a grad student, your goal isn't to be great at everything you touch - it's to specialize in some small corner of one field, and tactics are no help here. If grad school existed for Ninjas, the average student would walk out being the best (pick one of: poisoner/dart thrower/wall climber/etc) in the world - and likely knowing little or nothing about how to be a real ninja beyond what they learned in their Ninja undergrad. Tactics are never a bad investment, but they aren't always what is being asked of you.

Anyhow, I plan to take the advice in the article and to keep studying the tactics of bioinformatics in my spare time, even though my daily work is more on the details and implementation side of it. There are a few links in the comments of the original article to sites the author believes are good comp-sci tactics... I'll definitely be looking into those tonight. Besides, when it comes down to it, the tactics are really the fun parts of the problems, although there is also something to be said for getting your code working correctly and efficiently.... which I'd better get back to. (=

Happy coding!

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