October 24, 2009

Tell Your Story, Ask a Sincere Question, Interpret Generously

Below is an excerpt talking about devolving online discourse from Diana Larsen, chair of the Agile Alliance board of directors, which was included in the Agile Alliance October Newsletter. Sound advice for any discussion, not just technical ones:
“Tell Your Story” encourages posters to share their perspective on a topic and avoid assuming they can know or can represent the perspective or thinking of others. For millennia, humans have learned through sharing stories. We’re wired that way. Telling my own story keeps me anchored in real events, emotions, intentions, and outcomes without second guessing the emotions or intentions of others. Listening to stories of other people’s experience helps me learn a fresh way of perceiving the world. Telling someone else’s story brings me too close to the slippery slope of judgment and labeling, and, like a bug in a venus-fly-trap, I slide into the Fundamental Attribution Error, interpreting other’s unfortunate behaviors and actions as arising from character flaws, while viewing my own actions through the lens of the unavoidable situational constraints and drama of my story.

“Ask a Sincere Question” supports a mode of inquiry and curiosity. I pose sincere questions when I show a willingness to admit I don’t know, “I’ve never tried pair programming, how do you start?” or seek to extend my knowledge “What’s on your task board? How does it work for your team?” So, what’s an insincere question? It’s when a statement masquerades as a question (Don’t you agree that...?) or the question disparages another (How did you get to be such an idiot?) or manipulates the respondent (Are you still beating your wife?).

“Interpret Generously” gives me an opportunity to rethink an initial reaction before I respond. I get to ask myself, “what else would have to be true for this puzzling position/behavior to make sense?” and “why would a reasonable person behave this way?” Once I can imagine a generous interpretation and a positive intent, whether close to actual facts or not, my reaction changes. I become more ready to ask a sincere question about the other person’s story and to learn what lies behind the mystery of why we have differing perspectives.

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