Strategies for Successful Development

Process and technology for small teams building real software

re: “The correct answer is ‘no’” by Eric Lippert

Posted by S4SD (Seth Morris) on 2009/08/04

Came across The correct answer is “no” on Eric Lippert’s (always fabulous) blog and posted a comment.

Go read his post. And read the comments. And if you forget what it says (since I know you went and read it, didn’t you?), here’s a short summary.

Lippert gives us two example in which two people, Eric and Alice, meeting to talk over lunch. In each, Alice starts by saying, “I assume you know what I want to talk about.”

In the first example, Eric responds with a “yes” and tries to launch into the conversation, only to discover that he was wrong; on top of that, he was telling Alice something she didn’t know and possibly telling it in an overly abrupt way.

In the second example, Eric says he doesn’t know what Alice wants to talk about and discovers that it is something completely innocuous and easily dismissed.

[If you didn’t read don’t remember his post, Eve and Bob are two mentioned in the first example; Alice is concerned that Eve is threatening her relationship with Bob. You’ll want to know that for later on.]

Lippert correctly points out that Eric is guilty of mind reading1. He thinks he knows what Alice wants and proceeds without checking it out. Lippert provides a great image, “Remember, there are at least two thick slabs of bone between your brain and everyone else’s brain. Those thick slabs of bone impede telepathy.”

Mind reading is one of the most common occurrences in daily communication and it causes a vast number of hidden problems. It’s also fundamental to how humans think: we make models of things, including other individuals, we “try on” other people’s experiences, and we generalize behavior, including other people’s behavior, to reduce the load of detail we have to consider. It’s a strength; the problems come when it’s misapplied and unrecognized.

Lippert gives us a great, short caution about mind reading. So let’s go a little deeper.

Mind reading is a subset of assumptions and it usually manifests as (cognitive and linguistic) presuppositions. Understanding and recognizing them is fascinating, fun, useful, and complex (for example, in Lippert’s examples, Alice mind reads—even before the conversation starts—that Eric knows what she wants to talk about).

Recognizing mind reading is great. Lippert’s recommendation to sidestep and say we don’t know what someone is thinking is a good, blunt rubric. But to be truly practicable, we need a little more. When we start to form judgments or give recommendations we have to go outside the purely-cognitive world of assumptions; we need to include relationships, goals, context, and emotional states.

It’s great stuff to think about and it matters to each of us every day we interact with people. You paying attention just to mind reading will improve your whole team’s rapport and productivity immediately. Notice and utilize assumptions and presuppositions as well and it only gets better. And if you start to recognize and adjust response potential, which is touched on below, you’ll become a miracle worker.

There is more going on than the mind reading problem, although that alone is enough to have ruined more marriages than poker night.

Mind reading is essential to community

Alice wants to talk about something and she assumes that Eric a) knows about it, b) considers it important (at least to Alice), and c) is expecting to talk about it now. She’s mind reading and making some risky assumptions. The nonverbals (voice tone, facial expression, physical proximity, choice of meeting place, etc.) could indicate if it’s a positive subject (to Alice) or not2.

In the example, Alice not only assumes she knows what Eric is thinking, she also assumes she knows what Eric wants and needs. Eric’s response is the second mind reading. They could each have prevented the telepathy problem, but they can only prevent their own assumption that their subject of interest is also the most pressing subject (or even important at all) for the other person. To clarify: Alice wants to talk about subject S1. She assumes that a) Eric knows about S1, that b) Eric knows that Alice knows about S1, that c) Eric knows that S1 is so important/urgent (to Alice) that Alice wants to talk about it.

Sometimes, Alice and Eric may guess right. Maybe even most of the time3. They each expect not only that they know what the other is thinking, but also that the other expects them to know. Answering "no" violates that expectation and might cause an abreaction4.

It’s a cultural expectation

We expect people to mind read. Expect it too much and we’re being imperious (“he never told me he wanted it done that way!”), but expect it too little and we’re being detached. If someone always assumes you don’t share their thoughts, if they explain themselves constantly, they come across either as incredibly low in self esteem or (more commonly) as incapable of connecting with the people around them.

In the example, Alice expects Eric to mind read. Her opening statement is a challenge to ensure he does. It’s a version of the “guess a number” game. Alice is not only assuming that Eric can read her mind, she is assuming that Eric knows what’s important to her and gives it enough thought to make assumptions about the meeting. If Eric doesn’t know what Alice wants to talk about, he’s not only been wrong and violated her expectations about the meeting (producing some cognitive dissonance to get over), he’s violated her belief that he was aware of her and her needs/goals/values/thoughts.

Eric’s response (in example one), where he assumes that Alice wants to talk about Bob and Eve being seen together, doesn’t have the same degree of challenge. He presents information instead of asking for it and his mistake produces cognitive dissonance. In the example, Alice is mollified about Eric because the information he presented was in line with her values and needs. He didn’t know what she wanted to talk about, but she would have wanted to. It’s worth pulling this out because Eric passed the challenge (“guess what’s important to me”); the resulting problem masks the greater danger in Alice’s assumption.

Culture, Context, and Communication

Let’s go a little beyond the mind reading part. Whether someone is mind reading is measurable and simple5. Why someone is mind reading, to what degree they’re aware of it, how it affects relationships, whether it’s a help or a hindrance, what impact challenging it would have, etc. are far more complex questions. They’re also where the rubber meets the road: knowing that you don’t really know what someone is thinking, even if you often guess right, is nice, but knowing what to do with that knowledge is useful.

Response Potential

The statement "I suppose you know why we’re here" is intended to build response potential. It increases the importance of the subject and tends to increase the emotional content of the conversational. This type of challenge is an indication that emotional response is what Alice wants (for example, when it’s about an upcoming party, it’s intended to increases the excitement; when a cop uses it, it is intended to increase the emotional responses of powerlessness and culpability). Responding logically to an emotional plea is usually a recipe for mismatch, mistrust, and missed opportunity. It usually pushes one person much deeper into emotional response, forming a loop familiar to many people ("I’m so angry with you!" "But honey, look at it rationally!" “You never listen to me!” “I just told you I can fix it!”). It can also drive the person responding rationally into an emotional state or into detached (often withdrawn) emotional unavailability, often without either party realizing it6.

High response potential is another term for volatility. Eric may want to lower it (based on Alice’s nonverbals and how much they match Eric’s mood) or he may be comfortable with it. If he wants to avoid or reduce the volatility, a break state is a good response7.

Context is King

In mind reading Alice, Eric has to consider: is there a content frame around the meeting (Alice has come in to complain about Eve twice a day for a week), is there a context from to the relationship (especially in an asymmetrical relationship like a boss/employee might reasonably assume the talk is about that context)?

Eric has a lot of options when Alice says “I assume you know what I want to talk about.” The mind reading isn’t even a factor in all of them. Depending on what he wants, Alice’s apparent state of mind, etc., Eric could:

  • Answer "no" and trust that Alice will be ok with that
  • Answer "yes" and say what he thinks Alice wants to talk about, but keep it to what Alice has mentioned as an issue/concern/fear/etc. in the past
  • Answer "yes" and say what he thinks Alice really wants to talk about, even if it’s been concealed or unconscious (for example, give his interpretation of Alice’s situation rather than give his observation or reflect her statements [using the "observation-interpretation-advice" model])
  • Answer "yes" and say what *he* wants to talk about. This might shock Alice (who is already deep into a context that might be different), which can be bad or good (it might get her to change from an unpleasant state to a better one, like curiosity or empathy; at the least, it might get Eric what he wants from the conversation!)
  • Dodge ("you tell me," "yes, but I want to hear it from you," "no… you start," answer "yes" and just look expectant, …)
  • Lay cards on the table ("I think I know, but I could be wrong. Do you want to hear what I expect or just want to tell me what you want to talk about?")
  • Break state (make a joke, change the subject)

In the second example, Eric leaks information. But it’s clearly information he expects Alice to have, doesn’t mind Alice having, and wants to talk about. Eric may actually be happy about how the conversation went to that point; even if Alice didn’t know about already Bob and Eve being seen at Snooty Pretension Mistress Dive, Eric has a chance to frame it from the start. Eric’s response brought up something *he* wanted to talk about. He was wrong with his mind reading (and Alice was wrong with hers), but he’s responded to the context and subtext of the situation and he’s talking about something he wants to.

He also hasn’t hurt his relationship with Alice: she didn’t immediately denounce him for telling her (or for having not told her earlier, which seems like a good one to me) and he is still in an advisory role, allowing him to a) help his friend Alice, b) protect his scummy friend Bob or Eve, c) attack Alice and Bob’s relationship subtly so he can put the moves on Alice (or on Bob, or on Eve), d) increase Alice’s perception of his power and responsibility, e) get Alice to pick up the check, f) get an opinion on the food at Snooty Pretentious Mistress Dive, or whatever he wants.

And in the end the real points are about context, relationship, and what people need. What does Eric want and need? What does he think Alice wants and needs? How can he support/maintain his relationship (boss/friend/coworker/conspirator/lover/partner/…) with Alice? Is he there as an advisor, an ear, a person with power, a co-conspirator, a co-victim, an antagonist?

Like the rest of us, Eric and Alice need to remember that they don’t know everything, they won’t say everything right, other people understand them better than they fear, and open and honest communication both works and takes work.

1) In this case, “mind reading" means making an assumption about what someone else is thinking. The “Meta Model of Communication” (a model coming out of neuro-linguistic programming and originally designed for therapists) lists it as one of the common “violations” of clear and complete communication that get in the way of therapy. The meta model tries to give content-neutral, linguistic tools to identify its basic “violations” and describe specific (if occasionally rude) responses.

2) One limitation of examples posted in text on a blog is the loss of almost all nonverbals. “I assume you know what we’re here to talk about” has a clear denotation (that the speaker is owning up to an assumption) with layers of connotation (the speaker is offering the listener a chance to challenge the assumption, the speaker wants to control the initial subject of discussion, …), layers of presupposition (the listener knows there is a conversation imminent, the conversation is important, the conversation has a prepared subject, …), and open to wide interpretation (is the speaker angry, scared, joking, excited? is the subject positive or negative? is the matter private or public?). The connotations are primarily cultural and the presuppositions are mostly universal. The greatest variety comes from the interpretations the listener makes, and these interpretations are formed from the context and the nonverbals. They have to be from the verbals, since the words are what carries the denotation, connotation, and (most of the) presuppositions.

3) To some degree, this (how often the mind reading is both expected and correct) depends on the degree of rapport the speaker and listener have. It can also depend on to what degree the content and the expectation (what one person assumes another is thinking and whether the other person assumes the first knows) is part of a shared context (including—and often—part of a shared culture) rather than idiosyncratic and surprising.

4) One example in the comments on Lippert’s blog was Alice responding to Eric’s “no” by saying, “You mean you forgot that tomorrow is our anniversary?” If Eric did remember and did expect Alice to want to talk about that, saying “no” would have caused more communication problems that mind reading.

5) To measure if a statement about someone else’s mental state is mind reading, ask what sensory evidence supports it: what can/did you see, hear, smell, taste, or feel that indicates that this statement about someone is true. You may have:

  1. Direct sensory evidence (someone tells you what they’re thinking). This is not mind reading. Everything else is.
  2. External vicarious experience (someone tells you they heard the person say how they feel, or you watch someone talk on the phone and hear words that indicate how the person they’re talking to feels)
  3. Internal vicarious experience (you see someone and imagine how you would have to feel to have that facial expression)

Unsurprisingly, most mind reading is type 3: internal, vicarious experience. It has a lot of names: empathy, rapport, modeling, etc.

6) Virginia Satir created a model of how people respond to stressful situation. The model has six categories of responder: blamer, placater, computer, distracter, and leveller. You can find a good (and readable) explanation in many of Suzette Haden Elgin’s (excellent) books. I’d suggest The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work for most people; parents may prefer The Gentle Art of Communicating With Kids.

7) Learn to create break states. Use them to interrupt repeating cycles in teams, to nip arguments in the bud, and to separate meetings into “chapters” so people keep energy up and remember better. You can introduce a break state with humor, with a distraction, or by simply changing people’s physiology and metabolism: get them to move and breathe. I kick people out of a meeting room for 5 minutes at one point in my timeline postmortem process; this is why. Opening the door to a conference room and getting people to breathe works. My personal favorite is to suddenly sniff a few times and say, “Hey, do you smell popcorn?” [Thanks to Tom Hoobyar for that one.]

Listening to: Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – Lady Day and John Coltrane



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