Category Archives: communication

Improving my response to oopses

I made a programming mistake recently. At the time we discovered the mistake, we thought it sent lots of e-mails to executives. The team lead and the project manager immediately went into damage-control mode, contacting each of the potentially affected executives and helping them with any workarounds. While they were doing that, I was scrambling to figure out the extent of the problem and any quick fixes I could put in that wouldn’t introduce a lot more risk.

My clients and I are on good enough terms that I don’t have to put on a poker face around them. They’ve heard me giggle over neat things I’ve gotten the system to do, and they’ve heard me try to rapidly braindump possible explanations and approaches. I get quite unintelligible when I’m in the middle of something. My team lead was quick to reassure me that he accepted responsibility for the mistake, that I wouldn’t get into trouble, and that I shouldn’t be stressed. It’s logical. Too much stress, and you end up with negative productivity.

It turned out to be a smaller problem than we thought it was. That was a relief. After we sorted things out, I took a moment to reflect on that spike of stress and uncertainty, and how I could respond to mistakes better next time. I blogged a post-mortem of the mistake on the internal social network, identifying some Swiss-cheese factors that contributed to the error. I also thought about how I could improve my external response to things like this. Sure, I might be getting better at imposing order inside my brain instead of freaking out, but maybe a calm “Yes, this might be serious, but we can figure things out”-type response is better than “I feel worse than you do, and will scramble to fix this.”

2014-09-15 On programming and mistakes

2014-09-15 On programming and mistakes

2014-09-15 Future responses to oopses

2014-09-15 Future responses to oopses

It was good to have reflected on this. A few days later, we were faced with a technical issue that wasn’t my fault, but was still a challenge that we had to solve. I tested my take-charge attitude, and that worked out well. Even though we hadn’t anticipated that specific problem, we had a contingency plan that covered that general case. We stayed calm and worked through it. It was good.

I like this. It’s good to test new responses to challenging situations. Part of growing up, I guess!

Sharing cooking adventures

I told W- about the Ethiopian cabbage dish that Eric and I made at Tuesday’s open house at Hacklab, to go with the injera that we bought from a store a few doors down from Hacklab. We had decided to go with cooking Ethiopian food because it was a cool day (so, a warm meal), we hadn’t cooked anything Ethiopian before, and Eric had mentioned the injera previously; so we looked online for vegan Ethiopian recipes and picked a simple one to start with. A typical Ethiopian meal includes several kinds of stews served on top of the flatbread, but we figured it was fine to start with just one recipe and let people decide how they want to eat it. It worked out pretty well, although there were a few moments when we weren’t quite sure how to fit all that shredded cabbage in. (Eric picked the biggest head of cabbage, I think!) $16 of groceries fed lots of people, and there were still leftovers by the time I left.

W- asked, “How come you’re not as experimental when cooking at home?” Come to think of it, I tend to test recipes at Hacklab before trying them at home: gazpacho, Thai curry, Japanese curry… Cooking at Hacklab is fun because other people help (getting that second chef’s knife for Hacklab was totally worth it!) and the meals disappear pretty quickly.

But we’re even better set up to experiment at home. Proper chopping boards, all the pots and pans I need, no worries about extra ingredients or leftovers, and backup plans in case things go wrong… Slightly pickier eaters, but if I mess up, I can always pack it in the freezer for later, or even toss it out if I really have to. (I tend to have more tolerance for cooking than I should, although even I have had to give up on some attempts before. Ah well!)

W- is much more experienced at cooking than I am, so I’m catching up by exploring different recipes. Cooking has become a hobby for me – something I enjoy for its own sake, even if I’m still working on getting better at it. It’s even more fun when you’re cooking with someone, since you can laugh at stuff and swap stories. Sometimes W- and I cook together, although I guess lately I’ve been trying to do most of the household prep so that he can focus on work. Choosing the recipe is part of the fun, and making something often results in funny stories even if there are hiccups along the way (especially if there are!). Maybe we’ll just make a habit of trying one new recipe a week. Between that and Hacklab, I’ll be learning tons of recipes, yay!

Mmm… What do I want to try? Different kinds of pasta, for J-. Curries of the world! Salads for summer, both cold and warm! Mmm…

On Aristotle and talking to people about troubles

After reflecting on how I’d like to respond to people who want to talk about their challenges and how I want to discuss mine, I’ve been thinking a little bit more about the approaches that I favour and why.

Despite my faith in friends and availability of support groups or forums for pretty much any situation one can find yourself in, I tend to work through things independently. Sometimes I talk to W-. Even then, it’s often retrospective: “I worked through this-and-this dilemma. This is the decision I’ve come to because of these reasons, but I’d love to hear your thoughts in case I missed something.” I’d rather talk to people about the good stuff.

When it comes to other people talking to me about stuff they’re going through, I assume they’re smart and have tried things, so I ask questions about the obstacles they’ve run into. I like focusing on getting over barriers because this is one thing that other people can actually help with. You might get stuck on something because you don’t know where to start, don’t have the skills or experience for it, or because it intimidates you. Other people might be able to map out an easier way for you, directly help you (hooray for comparative advantage), or share how it’s really not that scary if you focus on doing X, Y, and Z.

While reading D.P. Chase’s translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I came across this passage on what to share with your friends when you’re going through challenges:

But [friends’] presence has probably a mixed effect: I mean, not only is the very seeing friends pleasant, especially to one in misfortune, and actual help towards lessening the grief is afforded (the natural tendency of a friend, if he is gifted with tact, being to comfort by look and word, because he is well acquainted with the sufferer’s temper and disposition and therefore knows what things give him pleasure and pain), but also the perceiving a friend to be grieved at his misfortunes causes the sufferer pain, because every one avoids being cause of pain to his friends. And for this reason they who are of a manly nature are cautious not to implicate their friends in their pain; and unless a man is exceedingly callous to the pain of others he cannot bear the pain which is thus caused to his friends: in short, he does not admit men to wail with him, not being given to wail at all: women, it is true, and men who resemble women, like to have others to groan with them, and love such as friends and sympathisers. But it is plain that it is our duty in all things to imitate the highest character.

So if you’re sad, it can help to have company in your sadness, but that might cause your friends to feel sad as well. Be strong, if you can.

It would seem, therefore, that we ought to call in friends readily on occasion of good fortune, because it is noble to be ready to do good to others: but on occasion of bad fortune, we should do so with reluctance; for we should as little as possible make others share in our ills; on which principle goes the saying, “I am unfortunate, let that suffice.” The most proper occasion for calling them in is when with small trouble or annoyance to themselves they can be of very great use to the person who needs them.

That’s probably going to be my approach to getting by with a little help from my friends: to figure out, perhaps, if there are small things people can do that could have a big impact, and to focus on those instead of on commiseration. As for when people approach me, or when I notice friends in difficult situations, I will try to keep this in mind:

But, on the contrary, it is fitting perhaps to go to one’s friends in their misfortunes unasked and with alacrity (because kindness is the friend’s office and specially towards those who are in need and who do not demand it as a right, this being more creditable and more pleasant to both); and on occasion of their good fortune to go readily, if we can forward it in any way (because men need their friends for this likewise), but to be backward in sharing it, any great eagerness to receive advantage not being creditable.

… to see the opportunity to be kind, where kindness might be cooking a good meal, giving a person a hug, or helping out in ways that take advantage of our different skills and experiences.

Hacklab open houses and connecting through cooking

I joined Hacklab (a small makerspace here in Toronto) early in 2013. I thought of it mostly as a way to meet people who are working on interesting projects, hang out, and learn together. It’s been working out well, and I’m gradually getting into helping the community more.

Hacklab hosts an open house every Tuesday evening. It’s a good opportunity for prospective members to check out the place and chat with people about their projects. We usually put together a vegan dinner donated by the person cooking it so that it’s free for the members and guests (although sometimes people pitch in for groceries). There’s no fixed schedule; people just volunteer to cook whenever they want. When I’m there, I often volunteer. I treat it as a vegan cooking lesson / soup kitchen / party. Sure, I’m teaching myself, but it’s still an excuse to try new recipes. I think the people there are worth supporting, and cooking is a much more efficient use of money than having people go out to dinner. Besides, other people often help with preparing the ingredients, and we can chat while doing so.

Here are some easy dishes that we can make with ingredients from nearby grocery stories:

  • Gazpacho: tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, garlic; serve with bread
  • Pasta salad: peas, tomatoes, olives, cucumbers
  • Curry: potatoes, carrots, green beans, tofu, onions; there are plenty of spices in the cabinet
  • Ratatouille: potatoes, zucchini, peppers, onions, garlic; serve with bread
  • Lentil dal: tomatoes, lentils, ginger, garlic, onions

I think I’ll make recipe cards with serving numbers and cost estimates. That will probably make it easier to come up with dinners on the fly, and it might encourage other people to cook too.

We’ve been slowly improving the Hacklab kitchen. The addition of pots, a rice cooker, and lots of cutlery helped a lot. (It was difficult to cook and serve before those things!) Last week, I replaced the rather ineffective and hadn’t-been-washed-in-ages kitchen towels with two sets I’d made from some fabric we had at home. I’ll add the towels to our weekly laundry cycle, so things actually get washed. Storage is still an issue. The fridge is used mostly for drinks, so we try to not have any left-over ingredients or servings.

I’m not currently working on super-geeky projects that involve other members or the equipment that’s there. (It would be interesting to do more with the laser cutter, 3D printers, or the new mill!) But cooking gives me a way to help other people, so that’s something.

I think I like this approach of taking responsibility for making Hacklab a little bit better for people. You get as much out of a community as you put in, and these little domestic touches can help make a place feel more like home. (I’m going to keep nudging people to put their dishes in the dishwasher, though! ;) )

So why does this feel easy compared to, say, having people over for a party or potluck at home? The kitchen at home is better-equipped, and both groceries and left-overs are easier to deal with. Maybe it’s because I can decide whether or not to go to Hacklab on the day itself. I can leave whenever I want, too. There are usually lots of people at Hacklab and they’re good at keeping themselves occupied or talking to each other, so I don’t have to worry about any awkward moments or entertaining just one person. There are lots of things going on in the area, so people can always step out for a different meal or take a breather in case there aren’t any seats or in case things are overwhelming. Hmm, maybe if I invite people to catch up at these open houses instead of waiting until I work up to having parties at home… Not everyone all at once, maybe one or two invitations at a time. Hacklab’s a bit loud, but we could always go for a walk if needed. That might work. Who knows? They might meet interesting people there too.

What are people looking for when they talk about their challenges?

Sometimes I hear from people who are having a hard time finding a job or clients for their business, working on establish healthier habits, or sorting out their finances. The Internet tells me that people who are struggling generally don’t need more advice, since they’ve been told by everyone else around them to apply to jobs, go to events, exercise, lose weight, stop eating junk food, stop buying coffee, etc. In fact, we should probably stop asking how things are going and stop trying to solve people’s problems for them. Ditch the clichés, too. Sympathy, encouragement, support, and maybe even a little distraction are apparently the way to go.

It got me thinking about different purposes for conversation, and how to match someone’s purpose better. Mismatches can lead to frustration on both sides, like when you’re really looking for advice and different perspectives and someone fobs you off with “You can do it!”, or when you’re feeling like this situation will never end and someone passes on a piece of trite advice that you’d already tried on day 1, or when someone just wants to talk and you jump in with a problem-solving mindset.

It feels a little weird to explicitly talk about what people are looking for in a conversation, but what if clarifying that up front can lead to a more effective exchange? You could minimize those mismatches or even direct people onward if you’re not in the right space for a conversation. For example, although people have told me that they appreciate how positive I am (which is good for when people need encouragement), I catch myself becoming impatient if people just want to vent without taking action. I’m much better with breaking down big challenges, finding alternative approaches, and celebrating small steps forward (even if they’re minuscule). I read extensively, so I can tell people some common approaches to different life challenges, but I don’t have a lot of personal experiences because my life has been pretty straightforward.

There are so many different kinds of conversations, so I’ll keep the scope of this reflection manageable by focusing only on the conversations where someone has started by describing a problem. What are some of the things people look for, and how do I want to respond?

Advice (rarely): “You should…” is a common response when people share what they’re going through. People rarely need additional information, but oddly enough, they get spades of it (even unsolicited). It’s not like it’s difficult to search the Internet or find books about different life challenges… and yet it’s so tempting to fall into the trap of thinking that just a little more knowledge will help people solve their problems.

I’ve been curbing the impulse to give advice by reminding myself that people are generally smart and usually try everything before asking for help. Instead of “You should…”, I often phrase things as “You’ve probably …. How did that go?” If they hadn’t done it yet, I ask what’s been getting in their way. I rarely have experience with the particular situation they’re in, but barriers tend to be common, so I can share how I’ve dealt with those – not in a “You should” way, but rather “Here’s what I tried and what worked for me.”

Acknowledgement: Sometimes people just want someone to see them and know what they’re going through. This is the “Oh, you poor dear; let’s have some ice cream and you can tell me all about it” sort of thing, I think. Active listening techniques (restating, etc.) can help here. I’m not particularly good at this yet, but I might get better at this by focusing on the interestingness of people.

Distraction: Sometimes you just want to have fun and take your mind off stuff. Like acknowledgement, but this time you’re having ice cream and watching your favourite movies or something like that. I’m not particularly good at this yet, but I can get better at this by asking people what they want to do.

Encouragement and celebration: “I’m in a sucky situation, but I’m working on it. I’m making slow progress, but I’m making progress!” “Woohoo! You can do it!” is sort of how this conversation goes. It’s like acknowledgement, but people are moving forward instead of getting stuck. I like cheering people on, and I might be able to do even better by helping people track their progress so that they can see how they’re doing over time.

Thinking out loud: I often find myself understanding things better when I explain them either to myself (through blogging) or to other people. Conversation is great for making sense of and making peace with things. People can ask questions to probe your reasoning and direct your thinking, helping you deepen your understanding.

Active listening and thoughtful questions can help. For my part, I can see it as a way to learn from other people’s lives and thought processes, so there’s a lot of benefit in doing this too. Learning about therapy might help here.

Poking holes (rarely): “I’m going to …” “That might not work because of …. Have you thought about …? What about …?” It’s mind-boggling how many people have this as their default reaction, actually – probably second to advice. My parents used to struggle with this a lot, because my dad would come up with wild ideas and my mom would immediately have her “How would we make this actually work?” hat on. I hardly ever do this with other people, although I do this myself to test scenarios: come up with ideas, then put on the “What could go wrong?” hat and poke holes, then update the plans to address those holes.

It’s probably better to assume people are not looking for this unless they explicitly ask for it. If people do want this, I like approaching it from a “Let’s make the plan better” perspective rather than the “You suck at planning” perspective.

Accountability: It can be easier to take action or change habits when you publicly commit to that, and having a friend follow up with you and keep you accountable can help a lot. I do okay with this, although I don’t actually enforce anything in case people miss their goals. (Perhaps I should start insisting on some kind of consequence – maybe ice cream.) Learning about coaching techniques might help here too.

Different perspectives: “I’m in this situation and I think you’ve been in something similar. How did you solve it?” is the gist of this conversation. Sometimes knowing that something is possible (because someone you can identify with succeeded at it!) is enough to give you the strength to get through the situation.

Requesting help: This is where you’re asking for help. Requesting specific favours do well, I think, because that makes it easier for other people to recognize situations in which they can help you. That’s why it’s good to describe your ideal client and ask friends to keep an eye out for people matching that description, describe your ideal contact and ask people to check their networks, etc.

I feel like my network is not as plugged-in as it could be in terms of business owners and potential clients for friends. I probably need to meet more people who need stuff! Hmm, actually, the input part works pretty well in terms of sketchnoting/graphic recording – I get the occasional request that I can forward to other people. In other areas, I can usually point people to other people who have experience in the kinds of things they want to do and the meetups to check out, so I guess that’s something. There’s room to work on this, though! Time to go to more events and connect with more people. Although come to think of it, that’s not actually the thing that worked for me in sketchnoting – maybe I’ll focus more on creating useful stuff, and go to a few events for serendipity.

Acknowledgement, distraction, encouragement, thinking out loud, poking holes, accountability, different perspectives, requesting help… What other purposes have you noticed when you talk to people about life’s challenges?

House culture

I happened across this First Annual Festival of House Culture while browsing through my Facebook news feed. As it was in the neighbourhood and one of the events promised to be a philosophy salon, I figured it would be a good excuse to try something new. I shared it with a couple of friends who are also into that sort of thing.

It was an enjoyable get-together: two musical performances and a free-flowing conversation that covered friendship, culture, community and connection. I signed up for the mailing list so that I can find out about monthly events. Apparently, there’s a series called the Piano Salon. I met a number of people that I’m looking forward to bumping into again. It felt like my kind of thing (versus, say, going to clubs or sports or movies).

I’ve been thinking about some of the things we chatted about. Here are some thoughts:

What is house culture, anyway? I think of it as opposed to going-out culture and homebody culture. Going-out culture involves spending for things like movies, dinners, and shows, although sometimes you can find free events or organize a picnic. Homebody life is more like relaxing at home by yourself or with a few other people. House culture might range from having a few friends over for brunch to having a mini-concert that includes friends-of-friends or even strangers.

I think it’s interesting to be at home (or someone’s home) instead of a commercial or public space. There’s something about being surrounded by someone’s regular life. Hanging out at home is more convivial and less commercial, too. I don’t have as many get-togethers as I probably should. I remember that I always get stressed out right before the actual party. (“Why do I keep doing this to myself? What if people take offense at not being invited? What if no one comes? What if lots of people come and there aren’t enough seats? What if I get introvert overload? Gah, the house isn’t clean yet!”) Also, W- is even more of an introvert than I am, so I don’t want to impose on him or cut into his weekend recharging time. I should remember that I actually do enjoy the conversations, that friends will forgive the occasional dust-bunny, that W- is okay with disappearing off to gym class or into the basement to work, and that everything is going to be okay. I’m up for meeting friends-of-friends, but I don’t think I’m comfortable with opening the house to complete strangers yet. Anyway, I can build up slowly. Also, people are awesome and they can help me learn.

Here are some tips for organizing a house concert/salon. We’re probably not quite at that point yet (music? seating? layout?), but maybe someday.

How does one make friends? We talked a little bit about what intimacy is, and how shared vulnerability can build trust. I’m not particularly good at being vulnerable around other people. This is likely due to a combination of:

  • All those lectures about how you should be careful about what you let people know about you. Sure, most people are good, but it only takes one person to really screw up your day/life/whatever. And it gets worse on the Internet.
  • I skew towards happiness, rarely feel angry or sad, and am learning to apply philosophical principles to minimize weaknesses and negative emotions. There are a few things that make me anxious, but I tend to be more comfortable working on those things myself.
  • I’m not used to asking specific people for help. I can often piece things together from the Internet or research, and I’m more comfortable with writing rather than talking as a way of thinking things through. I feel like putting blog posts out there and being open to follow-up conversations (either online or in person) is a little less of an imposition compared to asking specific people about their opinions.

I’m more curious about the Aristotelian idea of friendship between good people: a mutual admiration and help sort of thing, maybe? So for me, getting better at making friends might be more along the lines of learning what’s interesting and admirable about people (there’s always something) and using that curiosity to get over the friction I feel when it comes to planning get-togethers or going to events.