Fabulous Adventures In Coding
Eric Lippert is a principal developer on the C# compiler team. Learn more about Eric.
No technology today. I have not done a post on relationship advice in ages!
Compare and contrast these two conversations:
Alice: Thanks for having lunch with me. I suppose you know what I want to talk about.
Eric: Yeah, I do. I think you shouldn't jump to conclusions solely on the basis of all the rumours that are going around. There are any number of perfectly innocent reasons why Bob and Eve could have been seen together at Chez Franch together last month.
Alice: First she intercepts my email, then she steals my boyfriend?!? Passive attacker my eye!
This conversation, already off to a bad start, is not going to get any better.
Eric: No, I do not.
Alice: I was hurt that you didn't invite me to the book signing.
Eric: I did invite you to the book signing. Check your spam filter.
Alice: [boot laptop, search email...] Ah. Yes you did invite me. And I see your new book is called "Make Money Fast With Nigerian Viagra"; did anyone actually get the invitation?
Eric: Hmm, that might explain the low turnout.
Important human relationship safety tip: the correct answer to "do you know what I am thinking?" is "no". Remember, there are at least two thick slabs of bone between your brain and everyone else's brain. Those thick slabs of bone impede telepathy.
Reminds me of the problem of being pulled over by a cop. Invariably, they start the conversation with "Do you know why I pulled you over?"
Say "Yes" and you sound cocky and as if you rather brazenly fluated the law.
Say "No" and you sound like you are trying to play stupid an dpull one over on the cop.
I've asked two different friends who are police officers what's the "correct" answer to that question and they've given opposite answers.
Eric, what about pulling a "Pinky & the Brain" on her? For example...
Alice: I suppose you know what I want to talk about.
Eric: I think so, but if they called them "sad meals", kids wouldn't buy them.
Whenever a conversation starts with "I suppose you know what I want to talk about", it's already on a serious note. Attempting to add levity will help you get a better gauge on how serious it actually is - if they don't lighten up with your attempt at humor, then you know it's bad.
One of those thick slabs of bone can at least mitigate some consequences of failed telepathy.
In defense of the phrase, it can be a useful ice breaker to transition to a potentially awkward conversation.
No technological problem I have ever encountered has come close to matching the challenge of successfully navigating human relationships.
Corollary: it is unwise to start a conversation with "Do you know what I am thinking?", or variants thereof, for the same fundamental reason.
I would *love* to know what inspired that post ;-)
It was inspired by a recent work-related conversation that began "You're pretty perceptive, so you've probably already figured out what I'm going to announce to the team later today." The flattery was unwarranted; I had not. But even if I had, it is much better to say "no, I haven't" -- guessing wrong is potentially embarrassing. This particular conversation was not about anything juicy, just the routine movement of a highly competent and sought-after colleague from one part of our division to another. I decided to make the fictionalized illustrative dialogue far more salacious. -- Eric
You woudn't believe how excited I was when I opened my RSS reader to see the first line of this post:
"No technology today. I have not done a post on relationship advice in ages!"
The rest of the article didn't dissapoint either. You haven't lost your touch Eric, this could become an awesome agony column yet! ;-)
When I was a kid I read a short Sci-Fi story that shocked me then, about a detective who investigates the suicide of a mad genius who had invented a device that reads human thoughts; in the process of the investigation, the detective finds that device and cannot resist the temptation to use it. At the end, the detective commits a suicide himself: he is simply unable to withstand that torrent of... oh well, let's be polite and say that Special High-Intencity Training... anymore.
I want to know SOME PEOPLE'S thought, on CERTAIN SPECIFIC SUBJECT(S), and SOME PEOPLE care to know my thoughts on CERTAIN SPECIFIC SUBJECT(S); beyond that... well, no slab of bone is thick enough to protect me from their thoughts, or, if it comes to that, them from mine.
...Unless, of course, some kind of war is going on: in that case, to quote Sun Tzu, "...analyse the enemy's plans so that you will know his shortcomings as well as strong points. Agitate him in order to ascertain the pattern of his movement. Lure him out to reveal his disposition and ascertain his position. Launch a probing attack in order to learn where his strength is abundant and where deficient. [...] Thus, one able to win the victory by modifying his tactics in accordance with the enemy situation may be said to be divine".
That's so much for guessing what may be announced to the team on the next meeting, or when to start updating your resume, or when to pounce on your boss and make him your "former" boss: business is war, even in software development; you don't read their minds, they don't read yours, but you read the situation and act accordingly, and so survive (or not) and advance (or not).
James, I had mild success by responding "something stupid" to an officer. Not the best response to Alice, though.
There is no "always better to say X" where women are concerned.
Beware Version Three! It goes a little something like this:
You: No, I've no idea.
Alive: So you forgot that tomorrow is our anniversary?
Have fun in the dog house!
There is more going on than the mind reading problem, although that alone is enough to have ruined more marriages than poker night.
Alice wants to talk about something and she assumes that Eric a) knows about it, b) considers it important (at least to Alice), and c) is expecting to talk about it now. She's mind reading and making some risky assumptions. The nonverbals (voice tone, facial expression, physical proximity, choice of meeting place, etc.) could indicate if it's a positive subject (to Alice) or not.
In the example, Alice not only assumes she knows what Eric is thinking, she also assumes she knows what Eric wants and needs. Eric responds with a second mind reading. They could each have prevented the telepathy problem, but they can only prevent their own assumption that their subject of interest is also the most pressing subject (or even important at all) for the other person.
Sometimes, Alice and Eric may guess right. Maybe even most of the time. They each expect not only that they know what the other is thinking, but also that the other expects that. Answering "no" violates that expectation and might cause an abreaction.
The statement "I suppose you know why we're here" is intended to build _response potential_. It increases the importance of the subject and increases the emotional content of Eric's response and Alice's subsequent response. It is an indication that emotional response is what Alice wants (for example, when it's about an upcoming party, it's intended to increases the excitement; when a cop uses it, it is intended to increase the emotional responses of powerlessness and culpability). Responding logically to an emotional plea is usually a recipe for mismatch, mistrust, and missed opportunity. It usually pushes one person much deeper into emotional response and breaking rapport ("I'm so angry with you!" "But honey, it was just a joke; you can clearly see that it wasn't important."). It also tends to drive the person responding rationally into mismatched emotion (often without them realizing it) or into detached (often withdrawn) emotional unavailability. (viz. Virginia Satir's stress response categories)
High response potential is volatility. Eric may want to lower it (based on Alice's nonverbals and how much they match Eric's mood). Or he may be comfortable with it. If he wants to avoid or reduce the volatility, a break state is a good response.
In mind reading Alice, Eric has to consider: is there a content frame around the meeting (Alice has come in to complain about Eve twice a day for a week), is there a context from to the relationship (especially in an asymmetrical relationship like a boss/employee might reasonably assume the talk is about that context)?
Eric has a lot of options that don't involve assuming the is right mind reading. The mind reading isn't even a factor in all of them. And backing off from *Alice's* mind reading has interpersonal issues that skipping his own don't. Depending on what he wants, Alice's apparent state of mind, etc., Eric could:
- Answer "no" and trust that Alice will be ok with that
- Answer "yes" and say what he thinks Alice wants to talk about, but keep it to what Alice has mentioned as an issue/concern/fear/etc. in the past
- Answer "yes" and say what he thinks Alice really wants to talk about, even if it's been concealed or unconscious (for example, give his interpretation of Alice's situation rather than give his observation or reflect her statements [using the "observation-interpretation-advice" model])
- Answer "yes" and say what *he* wants to talk about. This might shock Alice (who is already deep into a context that might be different), which can be bad or good (it might get her to change from an unpleasant state to a better one, like curiosity or empathy; at the least, it might get Eric what he wants from the conversation!)
- Dodge ("you tell me," "yes, but I want to hear it from you," "no... you start," answer "yes" and just look expectant, ...)
- Lay cards on the table ("I think I know, but I could be wrong. Do you want to hear what I expect or just want to tell me what you want to talk about?")
- Break state (make a joke, change the subject)
In the example, Eric leaks information. But it's clearly information he expects Alice to have, doesn't mind Alice having, and wants to offer a reframe on to Alice. Eric may actually be happy about how the conversation went to that point; even if Alice didn't know about already Bob and Eve being seen at Snooty Pretension Mistress Dive, Eric has a chance to frame it from the start. Eric's response brought up something *he* wanted to talk about. He was wrong about his mind reading (and Alice was wrong about hers), but he's responded to the context and subtext of the conversation and he's talking about something he wants to. He also hasn't hurt his relationship with Alice: she didn't immediately denounce him for telling her (or for having not told her earlier, which seems like a good one to me) and he is still in an advisory role, allowing him to a) help his friend Alice, b) protect his scummy friend Bob or Eve, c) attack Alice and Bob's relationship subtly so he can put the moves on Alice (or on Bob, or on Eve), d) increase Alice's perception of his power and responsibility, e) get Alice to pick up the check, f) get an opinion on the food at Snooty Pretentious Mistress Dive, or whatever he wants.
And in the end the real points are about context, relationship, and what people need. What does Eric want and need? What does he think Alice wants and needs? How can he support/maintain his relationship (boss/friend/coworker/conspirator/lover/partner/...) with Alice? Is he there as an advisor, an ear, a person with power, a co-conspirator, a co-victim, an antagonist?
And no matter what, Eric (and Alice) need to remember that they don't know everything, they won't say everything right, other people understand them better than they fear, and open and honest communication (which *doesn't* preclude needing to keep things private or having goals/needs/fears you aren't ready to talk about) works and takes work.
Now if you could only teach people to not assume that everybody shares their exact interests and dreams.