This is a transcript of episode 137 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

One of Squirrel’s clients finds herself “harping on” a particular point in her technical team, and is frustrated that behaviour doesn’t change. Squirrel and Jeffrey discuss how this and other “tells” indicate that you’re stuck and how to come up with a pre-planned action to address these that will help you be curious and get to improved performance.

Show links:

Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.

Podcast Episode Transcript:

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel. You have a musical story you’re going to share with us today! You’re going to talk to us about harping.

Squirrel: Indeed. I have a client who was telling me that she felt she was always harping on something. And what she meant by harping was this–well, we looked up the etymology: it comes from the idea of harping on a string. You continually play the same string on your harp, and that means that you’re saying the same thing over and over again. She felt that she was doing this over and over again to get people to update a document, the document she has is really important to her, with great benefit to the company. The process really helps her team make progress and certain people don’t fill in this document. And so she bugs them and she bugs them and she bugs them some more, and she just keeps saying: ‘fill in the document. Remember, fill in the document. It would be great if you fill in the document. How about if you fill in the document?’

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Squirrel: This isn’t working, so she said ‘Squirrel, what can I do?’

Jeffrey: That’s a great question, what could you possibly do? I mean, it sounds like what you should do is keep on harping because it hasn’t worked so far, but maybe if you continue, people will eventually understand how important it is. Maybe they just haven’t heard it enough times? That could be it.

Squirrel: Yes, it could, and getting lucky is always an option, as we always say. I wouldn’t bet on it.

Jeffrey: That’s OK. It’s probably not playing the odds that way.

Squirrel: No. The recommendation I gave her was to find the people who were not responding in the way she expected. Be curious! Find out what the reason is behind their reaction, because they’ve surely noticed the harping. The good thing about harping is it’s hard to miss, just like if I play the same note over and over again, you’ll notice. So they’ve surely picked it up and they aren’t responding, and there must be something that’s causing that. If she knew more about it, she might discover that there’s a completely different cause, or that her harping might in fact be wrong. Perhaps the document’s useless for some reason she doesn’t know. So that’s generally the planned action that we would recommend in the case where you find yourself harping on and on and on about the same thing.

Jeffrey: Yeah. We would want them to have a conversation. Your harping’s not working, try having a conversation, rather than a one note musical performance. What you just described at the end: her having a preplanned action? We talk about this in Agile Conversations, when you analyse your conversations you’ll find different patterns, and one of the patterns is a tell, which is something that you will become aware of yourself doing or saying. In particular, the tell indicates that you’re in a certain pattern, and you should have a preplanned action that ‘when this tell happens, I should do this.’ Before you even told me the story, when you just you’d written the notes in our document I can remember you had the word ‘harping’ in there. That sounds like we can just from that know that what’s happening is not a conversation, and that probably you should plan to have a conversation. This idea, though, is the topic of this podcast. We’re starting with harping, but the idea is that there are tells in your vocabulary, words that if you hear yourself saying, you can probably use the same preplanned action–to summon curiosity and try to understand the other person’s interests–to have a proper conversation. Harping is a great example of this. That idea of the same thing over and over again, clearly not working. We should learn more of what’s going on rather than continuing the harp performance. What’s another one that came to mind for our list?

Squirrel: Well, certainly the one that I hear often is ‘I’m talking to a brick wall. The other person just refuses to understand’.

Jeffrey: There’s another one I’ve heard you relay many times, the word ‘convince.’ You tell people to try to remove that from their vocabulary. No more ‘I just need to convince them.’

Squirrel: Because that’s almost certainly going to fail and it won’t lead to a conversation. It’s very difficult to be curious while you’re trying to convince somebody of something.

Jeffrey: There’s my example that I’ve shared on this podcast a few times, which is I had a tell where I would say ‘it’s obvious’ while holding up my left hand for some reason. I said, ‘oh, if I find myself saying it’s obvious, it’s probably not. I should actually explain and see if other people agree.’ There’s several ideas that come to mind where just from the the phrasing, ‘I just need to convince them that,’ ‘I just need to make them understand,’ anything from this mindset is probably not set up for a good conversation.

Squirrel: Indeed, though it’s hard to break yourself out, which is why it’s very helpful to have somebody else to say ‘hey, Jeffrey, I think you might be harping’ or ‘I heard you say that you might be talking to a brick wall here.’ The reason is that the mindset we’re encouraging you not to have is self-sealing. It reinforces itself. So you say, ‘well, those people over there, they’re the brick wall. I always talk to them and they never listen.’ You become resigned to the idea. You build this model in your brain of the brick wall, of the people who don’t listen or refuse to understand, and that’s something to watch out for. It’s actually much easier to catch in someone else than yourself.

Jeffrey: That’s a really good point. You’re right, it is hard to see because it’s obvious to you they’re a brick wall. It’s ‘obvious,’ and so you can’t see the assumption that you’re making. You used a bit of jargon, which was ‘self-sealing’. A self-sealing belief is one that prevents you from testing it. You believe because of your belief, so you won’t ever try to falsify it. So if you believe they refuse to understand, that’s a position where it’s going to be very difficult to ever take actions that might lead to a different conclusion.

Squirrel: Or might lead them even to change behaviour! It might be their behaviour is reinforcing the belief. There might be some things you could do that would be different, that would change their behaviour and your beliefs. But you’re not going to get there if you start with, ‘they refuse to understand’ because that puts them–we did an episode some time ago called ‘Flipping the Bozo Bit,’ you put them in the bozo category. Once you put them in the bozo category, there’s no point talking to bozos. Why would you do anything other than repeat yourself a bunch of times hoping that maybe it’ll break through the bozo-ness?

Jeffrey: Other positions could be ‘they’re not interested.’ ‘They just don’t care.’

Squirrel: Yeah.

Jeffrey: We could come up with other items for the list, but this is a place where we thought we can really leverage the power of our audience. What are some other phrases that you hear–from your own mouth, maybe from others–that are signs that the conversation has broken down. When you’re frustrated and think further conversation is pointless, what are the kind of words that you’re using? What are the words that you’re hearing? We’d like to know because we think this would be good list of tells. I think one of things we could do is we could assemble this into a list and have it as a resource on our website for people who are doing conversational dojos. This could be a checklist that you refrence as you’re going through a conversation analysis. I think that might be an interesting resource.

Squirrel: I like it, but what we need there is for our listeners to help us out. So please have a look on, which is where you’ll find our email and Twitter and all that kind of stuff. You could respond to the Twitter message that we sent to to announce this podcast, or in any other way that you like, but if you’d send us one or two examples from your life: what are the sorts of things that go in this vocabulary list that mean that, ‘I’ve just kind of flipped the bozo bit. It’s hopeless. I can’t talk to those people anymore.’ If we can crowdsource a list like that, I think that’ll be very helpful for folks doing dojos. There’s a whole bunch of other resources and things on So please do have a look at that, we’re interested in getting people’s reactions to the many things that we’re putting up there these days and the events we’re planning.

Jeffrey: Excellent.

Squirrel: And of course, we’ll talk about this again in a future podcast, and you can find out about that by clicking the subscribe button in whatever tool you’re using, because we come out every week have been for a couple of years. We plan to continue. So we’ll see you here again and we’ll talk more about harping and other musical performances that don’t work so well, next time on Troubleshooting Agile.

Squirrel: Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.