Say want you want

We are empathetic animals, but much of our evolutionary programming is self centred.

We spend so much our of time with our head up our own arses that we often don’t intuit even the basics about the wants and needs of the people around us.

Relax, I’m not having a go at you, it’s just how we’re built.

Conversely, we can’t expect everyone else to undestand our wants and needs because they’re focussed on themselves.

This means that we must be direct and clear when communicating what we want with other people if we want to achieve our goals.

This way, they won’t have to spend their time and effort trying to guess what we want. It will then allow them to better able to make decisions about whether and how they can help us.

It doesn’t always feel natural to be this direct, but getting better at it will pay dividends in the long term.

Despite our networks and social connection, being a human can still be an isolating experience. Clear communication about what we want is a positive step towards establishing true connection with those around us.

Of course the best way to establish connection given the above is to be generous and take the time to understand those around us without thought for our own reward or gain.

As usual, the best outcome costs a little more that our time and attention, yet sometimes we need a little nudge to even remember that it’s on the table as an option.

Concision needs context and compassion

fired-by-sean-macentee

We are constantly pushed to do more, in less time, with fewer resources.

The world is always on. Always pinging us with notifications, alerts and reminders from our bottomless lists and inboxes.

And we respond to this world with a series of short, jerky, reflexive reactions. We’re playing whack-a-mole, but instead of a hammer, we have email, slack and whatsapp.

But the pace of the game has made our messages pointed and brutal. They’re forged from the cold steel of efficiency and function.

It’s not uncommon to receive an email such as:

All,

This is unacceptable. Just get them to do it.

-Dave

or simply:

NO!

but probably most likely:

NO!

Sent from my iPhone.

We’ve adopted concision as our weapon of choice, but we’ve abandoned the two ingredient which make it effective: context and compassion.

Our short messages need context, because otherwise they are open to misinterpretation.

Whether tonally, syntactically or thematically – a reduced word count makes it tough to understand meaning and nuance. This is especially true of sarcasm which, by its very nature can be almost impossible to correctly discern.

Anyone on the receiving end of

hilarious

(no punctuation, caps or context) will know what I’m talking about.

Thankfully, most of our common tools try to preserve as much context as possible by presenting our back-and-forth in a stream we can see.

The second requirement is compassion. Most people are happy to have the facts pretty straight, but they shouldn’t arrive as if fired from an AK-47.

We need to understand the impact of what we’re saying and then use enough of the right words to convey that understanding.

We always can use fewer words – but we’re potentially making our message both harder to understand and less impactful.

And if we’re being less effective with this shortened communication, then our concision is a false economy.

If being short means we’re incurring a debt of misunderstanding which we’re going to have to pay later, we should just take a little more time in the first place.

How not to f**k up when explaining something

Pantry by Fio

I love analogies. They’re one of my favourite ways to quickly communicate complex concepts, especially when the person you’re sharing with has no specialist knowledge in the relevant area.

I also love it when people use them to explain foreign concepts to me. It feels like a gift when something becomes immediately clear.

My favourite analogy is for speaking about the difference between computer hard drive space and memory (RAM) to non-computer people.

They’re like the pantry and bench space in your kitchen. The pantry is for storage and the bench is for working.

It’s great to have a big pantry to keep all of your ingredients, but if you want to cook, what you really need is lots of bench space.

Bench space is the key to getting things done quickly, because you can get out everything you need and have it to hand, when you need it. If you’re cooking without bench space, then any time you need an ingredient, you need to go to the pantry, find it, get it out, use it and then put it back in the pantry. It works, but it’s slow as fuck. It’s the same for computers without much RAM. They don’t have much bench space, so cooking is a slow and laborious process no matter how big their pantry is.

It’s good analogy in that I’ve used it to help a lot of people understand those concepts, but is it actually a good analogy? Are the concepts actually analogous?

And here are the problems:

  1. In order to understand if an analogy is any good. You have to know enough about the subject that you don’t need the analogy.
  2. You don’t have to understand the subject in order to come up with an analogy which seems to explain it.
  3. Analogies are a brittle, narrow snapshot – not a full landscape. When you look at subject X from this point of view, it’s a little like subject Y from this point of view. If you change the point of view (and we frequently want to), then the analogy is often no longer valid, but that’s not immediately obvious.

And these are problems because:

  1. None of the people to whom I’ve talked to about pantries and bench space know if it’s a fair explanation unless they’ve subsequently done the work to understand more about computers.
  2. I developed the analogy to let me think about computers in a simple way, because I hadn’t done the work to understand them fully. Because the analogy made sense to me, I assumed it was a accurate explanation, but they are not the same thing. Just because it looks neat, doesn’t make it an accurate or fair representation.
  3. The analogy only holds up (or seems to – remember, I haven’t done the work to know if it’s any good) if you’re using it to talk about the relative differences between and uses of RAM and hard drive space. It can’t necessarily be stretched to accommodate other factors (cost, power usage, clock speed). And if you do choose to apply it to a different context, it won’t let you know that it’s become inaccurate.

It has no analogy warning light.

Analogies we hear, might be neat and poetic, but until we do the work to understand what’s behind them, they should be treated as opinion rather than a representation of fact.

Analogies we make, when we haven’t done the work to have a proper opinion are doubly dangerous. Now there are two parties who potentially have a bad, broken way of explaining something important and complex – and no idea about how wrong they might be.

This isn’t to say that I’m going to stop using analogies any time soon -they’re my conversational multitools – just that I might stop using them as a substitute for doing the work to have an opinion.

BTW – You’re never as aware of the importance of context until you realise that someone could take a 3 word, verbatim quote from the beginning of your piece about language, and accurately, but unfairly assert that you started said piece with the statement “I love anal”.

Post photo by Fio