On Understanding Problems

There is something that we do, as geeks in the community, that if sit-coms are to be trusted is stereotypically masculine: we present solutions to problems before we actually understand the problem.

Stop that. You’re helping no one.

Too often, fruitful discussion of problems is derailed by proposed solutions and then argument over the solution’s foreseen effects. Sometimes, that leads to further understanding of the problem, but just as often it turns into a pointless waste of energy in the form of a flame war.

It also creates a situation where “I see a problem and want to talk about it” is unhealthy, because the discussion desired is not the discussion created. And then those sorts of conversation seeds are less often planted, which hurts us all (if, like me, you believe that discourse is how we elevate our communities).

Next time someone presents a problem, take a moment to understand it. Set aside your assumptions as best you can — especially when those assumptions are counter to the problem. Like countering someone saying “I don’t like playing games like Burning Wheel because they’re too crunchy for me” with “Well, it isn’t for me” as though the human being you’re replying to is the problem.[1] Ask questions. Get some sense of what is behind the problem.

I understand the desire to immediately problem solve, because that is for many of us its own reward cycle. And I understand the impulse to be the first to post a new solution online, because then maybe you look smart and that’s yet another form of reward. But slow your roll and take some time to understand problems, and you’ll get something even better out of it:

You’ll become one of the sharpest people in the room, for having come to understand so many viewpoints. And you’ll be one of the more appreciated people in the room, because instead of being an assuming cockbite with fast, vacant answers, yours are thoughtful and are themselves worthy conversation seeds.

So, if you cannot bring yourself to slowing down and understanding someone else for the good of others and the community overall, consider the rather selfish ones I just stated. :)

– Ryan

[1] If you say that, punch yourself in the face right now. That’s pretty damned insulting to immediately suggest the other person is him or herself the problem.


9 Responses to On Understanding Problems

  1. Kit says:

    Not just sitcoms, but also Deborah Tannen’s difference model of gendered communication.

  2. David Gallo says:

    There’s some value in recognizing that this works one way with direct, face-to-face communication and a different way with the kind of communication we see on the Internet.

    Another reason people jump up to problem solve first, ask questions later on the Internet is to battle the signal vs. noise issue – also known as “Too Long; Didn’t Read” (tl;dr). Which is an oddly telling description for the same problem Ryan addresses under a different name.

    If someone presents their “solution” earlier rather than later, there is the perception that it will be seen; before thread drift, off-topic posts, etc. dilute the conversation. There is an intrinsic reward.

    So how do we create incentives to create conversations with depth?

    • pie says:

      does there have to be an incentive? seems to me that solving the problem is either one’s highest priority (and its own reward), or it’s not (and maybe getting karma or upvotes or whatever is instead).

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Some incentives are intrinsic, like things that are their own reward. I meant to make that clear, but I was too quick in writing this post (as with most of them).

      – Ryan

  3. Wait, what happened to footnote [1]?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Bah, fixed. Probably cut that line in the main body in revision, which meant I killed the footnote & forgot to renumber. I do footnotes manually, because I don’t like the footnote plugins I’ve found and haven’t had time to make my own.

      Thanks for pointing it out!

      – Ryan

  4. JDCorley says:

    WHAT?! You dare imply that my masterful solution, presumably obtained while stroking my chin thoughtfully, may NOT be what someone wishes to hear? I’m outraged, outraged! I’m not in the habit of making threats, but I will post a comment on your blog about this!

  5. Joe Mcdaldno says:

    I struggle with this issue, for a number of related reasons (some to do with my learning strengths, some to do with my ego).

    I’ve recognized that in conversations, I have a strong desire to demonstrate my ability to quickly grasp situations. This has traditionally lead me to attack people with “helpful solutions” when what they’re looking for is someone to explore the problem with. In other words: to do what you’re reprimanding us for doing.

    Since that desire is part of why I *like* conversations (it’s part of my intrinsic rewards set), just silencing it probably isn’t the best solution. After all, it’ll make me enjoy conversations less, and feel like I’m doing myself a social disservice in order to be polite. So, I’ve put lots of energy into practicing different ways to engage this desire.

    The bad expression of this desire is the sentence “You should just…” Thankfully, I’ve found a good expression of this desire! It follows: “I’m curious about why…”

    “I’m curious about why…” widens the field of conversation, rather than narrowing it. Clever answers shut a conversation down, but clever questions open a conversation up. Further, stating your curiosities acknowledges that you’re talking to an expert, rather than establishing that you see yourself as the only expert in the room. Both “You should just…” and “I’m curious about why…” satisfy the itch to demonstrate your quick grasp of complex situations, but the latter engages the other conversationalists as peers and equals. I offer that phrase up to anyone else who, like me, is wondering what to do about that impulse that their brain is so attached to.

  6. Teramis says:

    Ryan, I agree that behavior derails more conversations than it nurtures. As a woman talking on largely male-dominated lists and forums, I notice this quite often and agree with Kit that a lot of this has its roots in gendered communications styles. Men seem to want to leap in and “fix things” (solve problems), even when no actual solution is needed. Just had someone do that to me yesterday in a thread where I explicitly said, “You don’t need to fix my problem”. I was just venting about something that bugged me, but “solutions” was what I got instead from some quarters.
    @Joe – what a great, insightful way to redirect that impulse. I hope your approach is spread far and wide and catches on. It does effectively reframe the conversation.