Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Two magic words - "I think"

We live in a world of absolutes. Water is wet, taxes are annoying, death is certain, it's always beer o'clock somewhere and the world is going to end somewhen later this year (which makes this post doubly futile, but what the hell). Hard to dispute any of those.

We also live in a world of non-absolutes. You may be freezing when someone right next to you is hot. You may be enjoying a movie when the person you dragged into the theatre is wishing for stronger teeth to gnaw through that wrist. Saying "it's cold" or "this movie is awesome" is going to be met with disagreement

What does that have to do with software development? We tend to be so convinced of ourselves that we take our personal opinion or experience as absolutes. It's acceptable to say "it's broken" when the application crashes once you start typing. But to say "it's broken" because it doesn't work as you expected is bad.

Such a statement kills the climate of any conversation. If you tell me that something "is broken", "is completely borked", "is idiotic", or any of those you're achieving one thing: You're putting me on the defence, and quite offensively so. After all, how could I have possibly written, approved, applied something that's so clearly wrong? That makes me uncomfortable. So I'll likely attack back because all I need to do now is find one example that proves you wrong. And that's usually quite easy. But at that point it's unlikely a decent conversation will ensue.

Worse, if you keep doing that at some point I'll stop listening because someone who makes false statements all the time should be in politics or advertising, but not involved with FOSS.

So now let's try the same again with those magic words: "I think this is completely broken". Well, now you've changed it from an absolute statement to an expression of your opinion. So my task is now to convince you to reconsider your opinion. I'm not on the defence, and the result is that in the worst case we'll agree to disagree - without that awkward absolute statement in the room.

A few examples:

  • "Nobody needs this" vs. "I don't think anybody needs this"
  • "The application must not do this" vs "I think the application must not do this"
  • "Wearing underpants is wrong" vs "I think wearing underpants is wrong"
  • "Bananas must be peeled from the bottom" vs "I think bananas must be peeled from the bottom"
Did you notice any differences? Any of the "I think" can be quite simply countered with "I don't think so" (especially the third one, please) and all you'd have is a discussion of two people with differing viewpoints. Even re-reading these examples my reaction to the first is automatically "WTF?", but the reaction to the "I think" alternatives is a conversational "nah, mate".

So next time you're not happy about something: just prefix your criticism with "I think". You may be surprised what difference it makes to the conversation.

Oh, two other magic words: "for me". Compare "This workflow is completely broken" vs "This workflow is completely broken for me". Amazing what difference those two words make...


Leslie Satenstein said...

Instead of I think ....

Am I doing this wrong? I am getting.....

nicu said...

I saw this also argued from the opposite angle: the "I think" part is redundant and not needed, if one say something, that's obviously because he thinks so. As technical people, our natural tendency is to reduce redundancy and have a precise conversation. Isn't ridiculous when is a conversation everyone say "I think"?

Also consider the case the person saying "this app is broken" is totally convinced about this, there's no way you can convince him of the opposite, so the strong statement with no "I think" is intentionally made so you won't try.

For the lack of "broken for me", that's also easy to understand: the person does not want to be countered with "works for me" or "you are not my target audience".

Peter Hutterer said...

Most of what constitutes politeness is redundant. "yes, please" is redunant yet more polite than a simple "yes".

Reduancy does not imply loss of precision, in fact it can add precision where language is ambiguous per nature (language is only a minor part of communication, body language and tone very important and completely missing from text-only communication)

I agree, starting every sentence with "i think" is tiresome after a while, but IMO only after it's clearly established that everyone is talking about their opinion. Because as you said, missing that from the opening statements can imply that the other person is not interested in different viewpoints.

Jasper St. Pierre said...

Several my middle school English teachers, along with many others, all taught that "I think" is redundant if it's clearly stating an opinion. Not only that, but when writing an opinion piece, you want to make your point as strongly and effectively as you can.

"As far as modern urban planning has evolved, it's surprising how old and leaky gas lines are still run under major streets. This is broken..."

"I think."

See the point?

It's unfortunate how this rule intended for a persuasive piece got written into law for all settings, and most disappointing, common talk and courtesy.

Note, though, that I can also rewrite your complaint: While they're writing an opinion that they want to persuade people with, you want them to append the "I think" so that their argument is weakened, and then shoot it down immediately.

Unknown said...

"I saw this also argued from the opposite angle: the "I think" part is redundant and not needed, if one say something, that's obviously because he thinks so. As technical people, our natural tendency is to reduce redundancy and have a precise conversation. Isn't ridiculous when is a conversation everyone say "I think"?"

I don't think this is a valid argument. Of course, there is an implicit statement of "this is what comes from my mind as it is now" before everything we say. Saying "I think", however, states that what follows is entirely subjective, or based on a personal feelings and leanings rather than objective facts. It also implies a degree of uncertainty, of detachment from what follows. One merely thinks/presumes/feels, rather than knows outright. And it's certainly useful in expressing tone, which is really what this post is about. Tone cannot be ignored or considered redundant. Language is not merely about communicating unemotional facts. Even technical people must understand that.

Erinn Looney-Triggs said...

I have to say I very much agree with you in theory.

However, in practice I have found that when interacting with other people in the tech world, if you don't speak in absolutes, they often don't understand or believe you.

A good example is in interviews. I often get asked questions where I believe I know the right answer, but who knows I may be wrong. So I say I think it is X. This comes across to people in the tech field as someone who is unsure of the answer.

It is a funny line, and I believe the more honest answer is I think X, but the stronger answer is, it is X.

Now I am all for more honesty, but if it detracts from your chances of being hired, well that is tough to deal with. There always is the argument, on the other hand, that you probably don't want to work some place where they all speak in absolutes. But when you have bills to pay you might not give a damn about that.

That is what I think.


Simon Geard said...

Erinn - as someone occasionally involved in hiring co-workers, I see it the opposite way from you. True, a recruiter doesn't want someone who appears to lack confidence in answering questions.

But equally, they don't want someone who can't distinguish between what they believe to be true, and what they know for certain. It's a matter of clear communication - a lot of time and effort can be wasted when someone offers speculation and others hear it as a statement of facts.

Renich said...

I think this is redundant ;)

Saying "I think" all the time is unnecessary. If we think about it a bit; there is no alternative; one cannot talk in the name of the universe or humanity. Only religious people believe somebody can talk in the name of their god or the universe...

My point is: you always talk in your own name; your own mind.

But, to find some middle ground, we could agree, when we start some discussion, that we're about to speak our own opinions; our own minds.

Also, we might try and avoid absolutism or totalitarian comments.

Thank you for this article. You wrote about a subject I think of quite often.

Unknown said...

Sometimes the word "seems" can add just enough uncertainty, be assertive, and keep things on topic:

"Foo seems to be doing bar when it ought to do baz."

Unknown said...

Except sometimes things are truly obviously completely broken beyond reasonable doubt.