Eli Weinstock-Herman

A Communications Hack for Helpful Ideas

Original post posted on November 03, 2016 at LessThanDot.com

You’re taking a break from the two week project and bump into Joe at the coffee machine. He’s a little frazzled and starts telling you about this little task he took on Monday that is kicking his butt. While he’s explaining you realize he might have missed a simpler answer, so you ask him if he tried it. He immediately gets angry, of course he tried it, what are you trying to say? And here’s all the ways that wouldn’t work, and so on, then disappears back into his office.

Why is Joe always so annoyed? He needs to work on his communication skills.

Joe’s Perspective

You’re three days into a one hour problem, having chased down and exhausted 4 different approaches before finally finding an approach that is going to work. It’s a little ugly and you’re a little frustrated that it’s Wednesday afternoon on a task you though would be done by lunch on Monday. While you’re waiting for the coffee machine to do it’s thing, Mary joins you and asks how it’s going. Being top of mind, you start talking about the frustrating problem you’re working on and the (annoyingly) complex solution you’ve come up with.

Two sentences in, Mary jumps in, “Why didn’t you do X?”

“What, you think I didn’t try that already?” your inner voice wants to respond.

It puts you on the defensive, so you quickly explain why that wouldn’t work, maybe putting a little too much annoyance in your voice (but then again, she did assume you missed the solution she came up with in 5 seconds for a problem you’ve spent 2 days and 4 solutions on…).

Why does Mary always think so little of others?

“Why did you…” sounds different on the receiving end

We’re problem solvers and want to solve challenges. It might be to help someone, it might be to help reinforce an image of ourselves as the smartest person on the team, or it might just be because problem solving is fun. When we offer a better solution and someone bites our hand off for it, we walk away thinking a little bit worse of them.

It’s easy to blame “Joe” and call him quick to anger, but sometimes we’re the “Joe” in the story and don’t know why we have to prove everything we say.

“Why did…” can sound like a demand for an explanation or a challenge to our ability when we’re stressed and on the receiving end. However from the asking side it’s just words, most of the time we’re saying “Why did you…?” but thinking “I wonder if they tried…?”.

Communication takes two people, so weis the listener as well as the speaker. In the story above, Joe and Mary failed to communicate and it escalated. if it occurs frequently enough, it will leave them predisposed to one another and they’ll start purposefully treating one another antagonistically.

“Have you considered…?”

A few years back I was frequently butting heads (and vice versa) with a developer I respect a lot and consider a friend. It was a small team and I was spending more time developing then managing, so besides having naturally strong opinions as a developer, I had the manager title adding greater emphasis to everything I said.

Our conversations frequently devolved into defensive debates, and one day during a one-on-one we realized that the word choice we started conversations was the thing that tended to start off us of on the wrong foot. We decided to start using the phrase “Have you considered…?” in all of those cases where we would normally use “Why didn’t you…?”

The change was instant and our conversations and whiteboarding sessions were immediately an order of magnitude better.

Here’s why we think it worked

“Why didn’t [you]…?” is really asking you to explain your actions (or lack of). It sounds like a challenge and it’s not hard to wonder if they also meant “…and I assume you didn’t think of that”. Add in some stress to exaggerate the possibility of a challenge into hearing one that most of the time isn’t there, and we’re instantly on the defensive.

“Have you considered…?” is a more collaborative question. It forces you to acknowledge that they might have already considered what you’re about to say and, if you continue to say it, invites a conversation instead of an explanation. You have to actually want to hear about it if they tried the suggestion and it didn’t work. And the times where you did just want to drop in the answer and walk on, it forces you to rethink whether you want to be the person that assumes the folks around you can miss something for days that you noticed in 30 seconds (even if it’s true 90% of the time, you’re going to be wrong 10% of the time and annoying 110% of the time).

Don’t believe me? Try out these phrases:

“Why didn’t you use the repository pattern for that problem?”
“Have you considered using the repository pattern for that problem?”

“Why aren’t you using Angular for that project?”
“Have you considered Angular for that project?”

“Why didn’t you break that 1000-line class into submodules?”
“Have you considered breaking that 1000-line class into submodules?”

Now try reading them in the other order:

“Have you considered using the repository pattern for that problem?”
“Why didn’t you use the repository pattern for that problem?”

“Have you considered Angular for that project?”
“Why aren’t you using Angular for that project?”

“Have you considered breaking that 1000-line class into submodules?”
“Why didn’t you break that 1000-line class into submodules?”

Can both versions of these questions be interpreted the same? Absolutely. But as you add stress, distraction, any history of interrupting folks to tell them at length how they should be solving their problems, “Why didn’t you…” does start to sound more like a challenge.

The results as we spread it further

It absolutely worked in our situation, to the degree that we shared the phrase and results with the rest of the team a few weeks later and, several years later, we continue to use it and introduce it to new folks. It may not be exactly the phrase you need in your environment, but find a phrase that everyone interprets as “I respect you, would like to know more about the problem, and wonder what you found when trying X” and use it.

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