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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?

Weekly review: Week ending July 11, 2014

Blog posts

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (22.2h – 13%)
    • Do my first laser cut
    • Help with Helpouts
    • Earn: E1: 2.5-3.5 days of consulting
    • Earn (12.0h – 54% of Business)
    • Build (0.0h – 0% of Business)
      • Drawing (0.0h)
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (0.0h)
      • Paperwork (0.0h)
    • Connect (10.2h – 45% of Business)
  • Relationships (4.2h – 2%)
    • Check out Festival of House Culture
    • Have coffee with Andrew
    • Have coffee with Nadia
  • Discretionary – Productive (29.4h – 17%)
    • Emacs (0.0h – 0% of all)
    • Go for yoga in High Park
    • Learning from frugal lives of years past
    • Planning my next little business
    • Writing (16.0h)
  • Discretionary – Play (14.5h – 8%)
  • Personal routines (22.1h – 13%)
  • Unpaid work (10.5h – 6%)
  • Sleep (65.1h – 38% – average of 9.3 per day)

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.

Learning to design Help and Support communities: Apple deep dive

I’m looking at how people design help/Q&A communities to support a wide range of users. After looking at Adobe’s examples, I’d like to focus on another company well-known for design savvy: Apple.

2014-07-02 14_10_47-Official Apple SupportApple uses a two-screen automatically advancing carousel on its front page. I find that curious because the carousel doesn’t pause when you hover over it, although I guess that with only two slides, you can always wait until the icon you want slides back into place. If Apple did that in order to keep the Apple Support Communities and Contact Us links above the fold, I wonder why they didn’t move those links up higher and then keep a static list of icons underneath it instead. Anyway…

2014-07-02 14_15_15-Welcome _ Apple Support Communities

The main overview page has a big, simple Ask a Question widget that dynamically searches as you type. Underneath it, there are icons to the featured communities.

2014-07-02 14_16_48-Welcome _ Apple Support Communities

Clicking on an icon shows icons for subcommunities.

2014-07-02 14_17_21-Community_ Using iPad _ Apple Support Communities

All the communities I’ve checked out seem to follow these lines. Big group icon, group title, ask a question box right underneath the group title. There’s a manual slider with a custom category filter that loads the discussion list using AJAX, avoiding a page refresh.

2014-07-02 14_20_04-Community_ Boot Camp _ Apple Support Communities

Some of the communities have a Top Participants widget along the bottom.

The Apple communities focus exclusively on Q&A – they don’t link to tutorials or other resources to help people get better at using things. IF you click on the Content link, you can find tips, but they’re hidden and tend to fall off the recent content list. The Content link lists content for all the communities, not the particular community you’re interested in – the Apple discussions theme doesn’t include a link to the content for your particular community.

The discussion-focused approach is interesting, but probably a little too severe. Providing links to tutorials and frequently asked questions can help people who are getting started and don’t know what they don’t know. This information is available elsewhere (ex: http://www.apple.com/support/mac/), so that could explain why it’s not duplicated in the support site. Anyway, Apple’s support communities are clean and stripped down to the essentials.

 

Made my first laser cut thing!

I have access to a laser cutter and a 3D printer through Hacklab.to, but I had never actually tried to use either. I’d been mostly treating Hacklab as a way to hang out with interesting people. Still, since the tools are there, why not learn how to use them?

I looked through the supply closet to get a sense of what other people had been doing with the laser cutter, and what materials would be easy to work with. Acrylic and wood were popular. There were lots of whimsical cut-outs (hearts, scalloped edges, etc.), but I’d also heard stories about how useful the laser cutter was in creating boxes, cases, and other parts.

I browsed through photos of all sorts of laser-cut objects online (boxes? stencils? earrings?), but nothing jumped out as something I wanted to copy. I decided to start from scratch by drawing something in Inkscape. We’d been talking about some ways to make it easier for newcomers to figure out what they can do during open houses. They can start with a brief tour of the projects at Hacklab, and then settle in to work on a project or chat with other people. I figured a welcome sign might be handy. I found a stencil-type font that cut the shapes so that the inner spaces would stay attached. I also learned that Inkscape has a Lindenmayer system (L-system) evaluator, which is useful for making certain kinds of fractals. For fun, I decided to make a Koch snowflake as the frame. Eric Boyd helped me convert the design to G-code and run the machine. It was fascinating watching the paper burn in these intricate shapes.

We cut the welcome sign out of paper as a prototype. (We can always cut it out of cardboard or something fancier if we need to.) Here’s what it looked like:

2014-07-04 15.30.07

I’d like to get the hang of designing things for the laser cutter. It’s a little interesting pairing that with our general slant towards decluttering and minimizing stuff. Maybe as I learn more about the possibilities, I’ll find things that make me go “Ooh, that would be nice,” or even come across gaps that nudge me to make stuff up.

What’s next? Maybe a name tag that I can add a magnet to? A scarf buckle? Bookmarks? I don’t really wear earrings or necklaces any more, but a conversation piece might be handy when meeting people – so maybe a brooch. Various containers for things around the house? Hmm… I drew this, and I might be able to turn it into a bookmark after some tweaking:

cat

Learning from things I like: Smashing Magazine’s responsiveness

I’m teaching myself design by looking at things I like and trying to figure out why I like them. Smashing Magazine is not only a good blog for design inspiration, but it’s also (naturally!) a great example of techniques.

One of the things I like about Smashing Magazine is how the site adapts to different screen sizes. For example, if you view it on a mobile device or in a small window, you’ll see a simple header and the story.

2014-07-07 12_45_42-Smashing Magazine — For Professional Web Designers and Developers

The menu icon links to the footer menu, which is used only with narrow screens:

2014-07-07 13_08_53-Coding Archives _ Smashing Magazine

If you have a little more space, the header will include the top-leel site sections (books, e-books, workshops, job board) and the left sidebar will include categories. The search also moves from being hidden behind an icon to having its own space.

2014-07-07 12_45_26-Smashing Magazine — For Professional Web Designers and Developers

Even more space? The left sidebar gets collapsed into a small horizontal menu, and a right sidebar appears with an e-mail subscription form and some highlights from other sections. I wonder why the left sidebar is collapsed into the menu, but I guess it would be weird to have the category list jump from the left sidebar to the right sidebar and then back again, and they probably wanted the e-mail subscription form to be above the fold (so it wouldn’t make sense to add it to the left sidebar). The search box is moved to the top of the right sidebar, too, so it looks more like a background element.

2014-07-07 12_45_09-Smashing Magazine — For Professional Web Designers and Developers

Incidentally, here’s a little thing that happens when the window is just a little bit narrower – the WordPress menu item gets abbreviated to WP.

2014-07-07 13_05_24-Coding Archives _ Smashing Magazine

 

 

And here’s what the site looks like when I maximize the window. There’s the header, the left sidebar, and the right sidebar.

2014-07-07 12_44_45-

I also like Smashing Magazine’s use of colours – the cool blue matches well with the warm red, for some reason that I can’t quite explain at the moment. I also like how they use different grays to make things recede into the background.

When I redesigned my site, I wanted to do something like the responsiveness of Smashing Magazine, so I learned more about using media queries. Here’s how my site behaves at different sizes. (Or at least, how it should!) On a small screen, the key links are just hand-drawn icons, and there’s no sidebar:

2014-07-07 12_50_57-sacha chua __ living an awesome life - learn - share - scale

Slightly wider? I can add some text to the links, and I can add a couple of optional links like Random.

2014-07-07 12_51_17-sacha chua __ living an awesome life - learn - share - scale

On a normal-sized screen, I add a sidebar on the right side.

2014-07-07 12_51_32-

On a wide screen, I move the post meta information to the left margin.

2014-07-07 12_51_54-sacha chua __ living an awesome life - learn - share - scale