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Conversational Antipatterns on Message Boards

Conversational Antipatterns on Message Boards

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Architects argue.  I have, over the past year, spent a good bit of time on LinkedIn Message boards.  I’ve watched a lot of people argue.  I’ve learned a great deal about Enterprise Architecture, and a few things about myself, as I’ve compared notes with individuals who have different perspectives and motivations. 

That said, some patterns have emerged, good and bad, for conversing with other architects on these message boards.  In the spirit of the GOF Design Patterns, and the subsequent work on Antipatterns, I’d like to point out some of the antipatterns I’ve noticed repeatedly on the boards, and in each case, these antipatterns cause some level of anxiety.  This is borne out by observing the responses, where frustration is often explicit.

There are nearly always two roles in this kind of argument.  The provocateur ( a person who makes a statement that is challenging or innovative ) and the responder ( a person who responds in a way that triggers the antipattern behavior ).  

Conversational Antipatterns

  1. Don’t misrepresent me with my own words
  2. The problem with your general message is this specific use of a word
  3. If you don’t understand, you should read my published papers
  4. My argument has been validated with my years of experience, so you must be wrong
  5. My certification means more than you think it means
  6. You are using “my” terminology wrong

 

Antipattern 1: Don’t misrepresent me with my own words

In this antipattern, the provocateur will make a statement that appears to conflict with something that they said previously or said in another discussion.  If the responder points out the conflict, especially if done with a direct quote, the provocateur get’s offended and becomes defensive.  Conversation ends.

How to avoid: People are inconsistent but believe that they are quite consistent.  If a provocateur appears to be inconsistent, the responder should simply ask for follow up details.  Don’t pounce in public.  Find out what their real underlying thinking is, rather than picking at words.  If they remain inconsistent, the responder should reach out in private.  In the private message, the responder should point out the text from the other thread and ASK them to explain how these two positions work together. 

How to address: The forum moderator should look at the value of the conversation.  Has the provocateur added useful thinking?  Has the responder?  Normally, the answer to both questions is “yes.” If so, send a warning message to both asking them to assume positive intent and consider the emotional context of the other.

Antipattern 2: The problem with your general message is this specific use of a word

In this antipattern, the provocateur will make a general statement designed to express a “grand idea.”  The  responder will either agree or disagree (usually the latter) but then point out that a particular word, in the response, was used incorrectly.  Perhaps they said “process” when they should have said “capability.”  Perhaps they said “activity” when they should have said “process, activity, and practice.”  Perhaps they said “business” when they should have said “enterprise.”

How to avoid: The responder should start by stating whether they agree with the main idea, or not.  If they disagree with the main idea, offer a reason “why” that has NOTHING to do with the detailed wording.  Take the time to think about what the big idea is, and follow up to understand it, before focusing on a word.  Disregarding a “big idea” because you disagree with a minor distinction in the wording is frustrating to everyone on the community, and stifles the sharing of ideas. 

When you get to the point where you understand the big idea, the responder can offer a suggestion to improve the understanding the idea.  For example, “I agree with your core concept.  It appears that we have similar experiences and I find your description innovative.  It may help, as you go forward to share this idea, if you are careful about the use of the word “zyzzix” because I understand that word to be a synonym of “fryzzam.”  I understand that you make a distinction between these terms, but not all of your audience may agree that these two terms are distinct.  You may find it easier to reach people like me if you use the term “golozarat” instead to refer to this muddy concept.”

How to address: Either of the participants can pull back and “get to the point” by reframing the “grand idea” and ask if the other person agrees with a simple “yes” or “no” answer.  If no answer is forthcoming, no learning is happening.  If you are asked to consider a new big idea, take some time before you respond to think about that idea.  Be willing to learn and grow, not just pontificate.  My father used to say, “sometimes, the best way to open your mind is to close your mouth.”  It’s good advice.

Antipattern 3: If you don’t understand, you should read my published papers

In this antipattern, the provocateur will make a specific statement that appears well thought out, but may be innovative or controversial.  When the responder asks questions for follow-up, the provocateur replies “I explained this in rich detail in my book” or “please read my paper in the Journal of EA Innovation, September 2005, page 14.”  This generates frustration on the part of the readers who cannot hear the full discussion because some of it exists in a book or article that they may not have access to.

How to avoid: First off, if you are an author, you must realize that publishing a paper or book does not give you the right to force others to read it before speaking with you.  You will never be out of the “business” of educating others in your ideas.  Get used to it.  Getting defensive is counterproductive.

To avoid creating frustration, it is OK to point others to your work, but then ALSO offer a summary of what you said in that work and be willing to continue to discuss the problem in the forum.

How to address: When this happens to you, it is probably safe to assume that the author you are speaking with is looking for some validation.  Compliment him or her, and ask them to provide a summary of their thoughts from the book or article so that progress can continue.  If you are a moderator, and one provocateur does this a lot, or gets defensive when others DON’T read their articles, remind them privately of this antipattern.  If they persist, suspend them from the board for 30 days.

Antipattern 4: My argument has been validated with my years of experience, so you must be wrong

In this antipattern, the provocateur will make a statement that appears to be too directive or too specific for others to understand or agree with. If the responder challenges the position, the provocateur claims that their “years of experience” have found their position to be true.  The provocateur remains unbending, and repeatedly argues against any alternatives.

How to avoid: This is tough to avoid.  People form their own mental models of reality and when challenged, they can listen to alternatives, or defend their model.  The problem with listening to alternatives is that it is risky.  They may discover that a past “success” was not as successful as it may have been.  In the words of my friend Jack, “their ears are filled with their ego.”

Often the best way to avoid the problem is to model good behavior in your own contributions.  When posting an opinion, lead with “in my opinion” or “in my experience.”  Use phrases like “I’ve found this to be true in my situation,” and then ask others to share “their situation.”  That way, when someone does respond with a statement like “you are wrong,” you can follow up with a moderation message, like “I believe that our experiences may be different in this respect. I’m glad that you shared your experience.  Can you tell me how we should reconcile our two different sets of experiences to come to a mutual understanding?”

How to address: Usually the best way around this is to respond as above, asking for a common understanding.  However, if that doesn’t work (and it often will fail), then you have no leverage to “require” someone to change their opinion.  Ask if it is OK for the two of you to “agree to disagree” and move on.  There is no point in discussing the same issue over and over.

Antipattern 5: My certification means more than you think it means

In this antipattern, the provocateur will state that a concept that he or she is fond of, applies to the discussion at hand.  When the responder questions the concept, the provocateur responds that they are “certified” or otherwise demonstrably educated, and their certification tells them to use that concept.  Upon inspection, it is clear to all that the certification in question does not cover the same scope as the provocateur claims it does.  An example would be an IT person, certified in the development of software interfaces called “SOA Services,” claiming an understanding of business services or customer services.  Another example would be a person with substantial training in financial risk management claiming that all business decisions in the enterprise begin, and end, from a risk management viewpoint.

How to avoid: As with most of these antipatterns, we have a situation where the ego of one or more of the people may be getting in the way of open communication.  The “certified” individual may, in fact, have broader experience than their certification prepares them for.  However, there is often a predisposition, among those that have been formally trained in a field, to believe that the training describes the world “as it is” rather than the world “as it should be.”  More often than not, the training is simply out of sync with the reality on the ground.

As a result, of the “ego factor,” this antipattern is somewhat inevitable.  It will occur more in some areas than in others.  Unfortunately, in the EA field, it occurs often because of the explosion of certifications and the lack of consistency among the field participants.

How to address: One good way that I’ve found to address this problem is to point out your own experiences, using words that reflect that you are not dictating some universal truth but rather the experiences you’ve actually had.  Use first names of people (replace the actual first names, to protect your friends), and explain how they used the terms and concepts of the space.  Then describe how you worked in that situation.  Try to use successful scenarios to lend credibility to your position.  You want to help them to see that their position may not be universally true.  You don’t want to prove them to be wrong, because that would simply be your ego trying to stomp on theirs.  There are names for this kind of ego-vs-ego behavior.  Avoid it.  It hurts your credibility to engage in it.

Antipattern 6: You are using “my” terminology wrong

In this antipattern, the provocateur will state that a concept has one, and only one, meaning.  The responder suggests an alternate meaning, and the provocateur responds defensively, citing sources for their definition of the term.  This is where you see a “dictionary grudge match” where someone cites a definition from an authoritative source, and another person responds with either ridicule of the source or, even better, another authoritative source with a conflicting definition.

How to avoid: Firstly, if someone questions your use of a word, don’t immediately go hunting for a reference definition.  In other words, model good behavior.  Admit that your definition, regardless of how well sourced it is, was created by other (fallible) people with a particular context in mind. It is entirely possible that the provocateur also has a different context than you, and that the author of the definition that you are painstakingly citing would have created a different definition if he or she had the same context as the provocateur.

Of course, if someone asks you for a reference, it is perfectly appropriate to give one on a message board.  In writing a research paper, you would assume that the reader wants to know your sources, and you would always provide them, but for conversation on a message board, you should wait to be asked.

Secondly, don’t be “possessive” about the terms that you use.  Your openness will reduce the likelihood that others will be possessive about the terms that they use.  If someone wants to use a synonym, agree. 

How to address: One good way that I’ve found to address this problem is to ask the provocateur for their help in explaining their terminology to you.  Most people will be flattered by the request, and will go out of their way to describe what their use of a term means.  If you respond by “reframing” their statement, using a smattering of your own terminology, then you will quickly discover whether that person is interested in conversing with a shared set of terms, or if the conversation can only proceed by acquiescing to their use of language.  If the latter, it becomes a judgment call, on your part, about whether you should continue to interact at all.  It is better to end a discussion on a good note than to fight on forever over the meanings of words.

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That’s my list.  I’m sure that there may be more, but these are the ones that crop up often enough for me to want to write about them.  I hope this is helpful for folks who want to discuss things on message boards, like LinkedIn, without becoming entwined in endless arguments.

  • Nick

    Wonderful contribution - the work of a real architect - recognising patterns and assessing supportive vs destructive behaviours associated with use of these patterns, offering in an open and invitational way the opportunity for future improved performance.  I should not expect less from a leading practitioner!!

    What spoke to me in this was a number of my own learnings from similar experiences, and some underlying principles which support the gaining of greater value from the patterns.

    Firstly, I would have to point out that I have learned more through honestly and openly addressing any of the challenges I have received to my latest thinking and ideas.  Principle 1 - be open, be honest, be true to yourself, and be willing to admit being wrong

    I find that people respond better if I provide constructive critique ie, I describe my issues and concerns and offer an alternate articulation rather than simply telling them that they are wrong.  Principle 2 - offer constructive critique

    I keep on finding that there is not a single right answer.  There are multiple perspectives, and not just two the right one and the wrong one.  The latter is what is often articulated and created.  It polarises people rather than bringing them together to a shared understanding and commitment.  Principle 3 - and not or

    A former colleague told me that his boss said communication is what other people hear, not what you say.  If someone responds in a manner you don't expect, then consider the possibility that they did not appreciate your intended meaning and that there is an obligation on you to communicate it again in a different and hopefully clearer way.  Here we need to recognise that language can be our worst enemy - that which we choose to use may fail to communicate our intended meaning.  Principle 4 - take responsibility for clear communication

    If I am engaging with 10 people, then there are ten different mental models at play.  Each is dynamic, potentially changing with each interaction.  Hopefully, they become more aligned through interaction and provide the basis for shared understanding and better collaboration.  it is important to honour each of the mental models at play and the people who own them.  Principle 5 - offer respect and reciprocity

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