Shouting Into The Void
How Tom Hanks can teach us to communicate effectively
After the COVID-19 lockdown hit, like most people, I had to adjust to the new isolated way of life. I haven’t always been a remote worker, I’ve always had a “lair” at work to be able to go to and think more effectively, away from home and family distractions. That said, I always carry my laptop, I can work from anywhere: an airport, a park, a plane. We’re a distributed company already. We even wrote a blog about it (but it seems a lot of companies have).
What I found more stressful was: communicating. For some reason I couldn’t figure out. Every conversation felt like an argument, or like it was, at best, being run through a cycle of google translate from English to Chinese to Italian and back to English. Responses I got from communication were, at best, unsatisfying.
One example that sticks in my head:
I was posting on FaceBook about, when I become a homeowner, wanting to “massively overbuild” parts of my home electrical system. I had a design in my head for what I meant by this: Running extra “dead” cable to certain places like workshop or garage so walls didn’t have to be torn out in the event of an upgrade — leaving clear, unfinished cable pathing and raceways. Putting outlets in places you’re not used to seeing them like closets and cupboards. Using thicker gauge wire so a home-run from my main panel to my dryer could easily be upgraded to a sub-panel by only replacing the ends.
Because FB posts that run long aren’t easily seen or read, I didn’t expand on every single detail. I hadn’t shown a design plan or schematics. I had shared rough goals.
A friend had many followon comments. But they became less follow-on and more lecturey. Assertions about how I’d never be able to get more than X amp service from the local utility company, that I was asking for a fire, that it would be too expensive. This was for a house that didn’t yet exist. It was wishful thinking. It was looking forward to a fonder time. And it was a 50-comment back-and-forth. With each of us typing responses before the other had finished digesting. It was exhausting.
I noticed this as a trend, with coworkers, online friends, and even live-in partners. There’s an increased incidence of talking past each other. Of it feeling like an argument even if we were in agreement.
I remarked to my boss yesterday:
“With the finance machines going away, there will be far less need for the VPN.”
“We still need it, for the other production service our group runs.”
Yes, thank you. I didn’t say the VPN was obsolete. I was implying that we’d need to burn fewer cycles on it, that fewer people would need it, that we could explore other options. And moreover, I was pretty sure he knew what I meant. his response felt to me like an argument. Like a mansplain. Was he supposed to be telling me something I don’t know? Was he trying to make sure I knew that he knew that our own team still needed the VPN? In a time of uncertainty, over text-based mediums, there are multiple ways to read the sentiment, which in a bar or at a tabletop meaning, would be discarded out of hand. With text, everything falls into the same context.
Other behaviors I’ve found to be annoying seem to be: answering a question with a question: “Where’s the cat?” “Why?” or “Are you Hungry?”, “What time is it?”. This is a non-answer.
And then there’s the “answering a different question than the one I asked” problem. “What’s in the box?”. “It’s for Steve.” Thanks, that was a non-answer.
All together, they’re making things harder than they need to be.
I’ve come up with a name for this: The Wilson Effect. I believe it’s pretty global — we’re all experiencing it, but two people having it make it worse. To explain it, though, I need to talk about the goal of communication in general. Communication is the way we take a neural configuration: a picture, a place, or an emotion, which is all represented by a configuration of chemicals and neurons in our brains, and translate them to someone else’s brain.
Human brains work by reference, so I’m going to use some.
I am trying to describe a complicated neurological problem to you, my audience. I am neither a linguist, a sociologist, nor a psychologist. I don’t have the language for those. I am a technologist, and so the best “lens” I have for describing this to you, is references to technology. Trust me, we’re going to loop back around and button it up at the end.
For starters, I need to background some basic facts about people, and the way they work with technology. I’ll start with some of the most basic tech people work with: a phone. An old-school touch-tone phone, specifically.
People in general tend to find silence unnerving. The way telephones work is riddled with evidence of this: If you pick up a phone, you hear a noise that tells you the it is ready. When you push a button, you not only hear a tone that tells you that button is different, but the first noise, the dial tone, stops. The system has changed in response to your input. You press a second button. You get a *different* tone. You finish pressing buttons, you get *new* sounds that tell you the system is working. We have comfort noise and side tone, and more obviously dial tones and ringback tones. Even a nonfunctional phone has some sounds to it that are distinct from a totally disconnected one.
They are all quiet, unobtrusive acknowledging indications that the system is there for you, doing what you want. And as we’ve moved to more digital phone systems, we’re expending extra efforts to make sure those systems are still in place, even though it may use more bandwidth and processing power. The system quietly tells you it’s doing something.
It’s not just voice: Computer cursors blink. System clocks update. Hard drive activity lights blink. Progress bars move. The little hourglass or beachball comes up. ATM keys beep when you press them. Menus blink when we select things. Access cards beep when they’re read. Heck, even clocks have a second hand that we can see moving. We, as humans, like feedback, and we need to feel as though we’re interacting.
If you sit a person down in an empty room, and stare at him, he will probably eventually talk about *something* just to break the silence. Many interrogation techniques are based on this very idea, that, left long enough people will say something to break the silence. On some level, this is also because people have a need to express what’s on their mind, and be heard. They need to know they’re not talking into a dead phone. Psychologists will have a precise name for this process, but I’m not them.
When we are born, we basically have a single way of communicating: cry. Cry has evolved over thousands of years. Our ears are optimized for that noise, and higher pitched noises carry further and with more clarity. When “cry” happens, the situation around us for our caregivers becomes an adventure of “when this makes noise, something needs solving”.
Cry is inefficient, though. As we grow and develop language, we are taught that using words is a shorter-path answer to getting our needs met. Words are specific. Words are targeted and direct. Words are our way of translating “the position of these chemicals in my brain is arranged such that I feel hunger.” And yet, sometimes, when we have profound sadness, we still cry or yell or scream, because our limbic systems feel a need that we don’t have useful words for. We haven’t learned to translate those to people in a useful way. The neural pattern just needs a way out, to be expressed.
In software engineering, we have a concept called rubber duck debugging, where you fix a nonfunctioning bit of code by taking an inanimate object, such as a rubber duck, and explain the flow of your program, as though you were explaining it to a newcomer to the code. Basically, we use this “explain the state of your brain so someone feeds you” hack, and take it to the meta: we explain the state of our *program’s* brain (which itself is a product of our own brains) to another simulated brain, in the hopes of explaining it to ourselves. If you spend your time around engineers, you’ll sometimes notice they will start explaining something tangled and complicated to you, and then say “sonofabitch” and run out of the room and start coding. In our minds, not only did we need to hear someone think, but we were feeling things like silence and unresponsiveness from the code.
In the movie Cast Away, we’re seen that Tom Hanks, a resourceful type stranded on a desert island who learns to fish, build fire, even build a sun-calendar and a boat, has this basic need: to speak, and be heard. To have some sense of companionship, with someone who understands things on some level. To have some sounding board to express his plans off of. Resourceful Tom-Hanks character finds this, like all the things he’s left with on the island, in a Fedex box that washed ashore with him: A volleyball with his own bloody handprint on it that he names Wilson, after the manufacturer of the ball.
Using this prop is a useful way of carrying the narrative forward, of allowing dialog when it’s a person alone, but it’s also the solution to a real problem: Being alone is crippling and scary. And feeling like you’re getting no feedback is a gateway to feeling the walls closing in. In Cast Away, Tom Hanks was rubber duck debugging his own situation, to a volleyball.
So let’s add those up: Desire for feedback. Desire to know you’re being heard. Desire to know that your thoughts are being understood, and assimilated. Furthering your own thought process via this.
Which brings us to today. As I write this, it is early June of 2020. We are in the fourth month of a pandemic. We have just had one of the largest empires in the world fracture based on a nearly 50/50 vote. We’re in the second or third month of a global pandemic. We have demonstrations going on in all 50 states because people are tired of seeing yet another person of color killed with excessive force by an overmilitarized police force that has a history of institutionally profiling and targeting people of color. Our government (The US) has done by all accounts “not enough” to prevent a global catastrophe from a health point of view, but is also doing shockingly little to prevent a civil or economic one. And at the head of it all, a man who’s great at talking over you lots and saying nothing.
Many of us aren’t feeling very “heard”, globally.
Politically, it’s very easy to shout into the void and feel like you’re doing a poor job of aligning the configuration of your neurons with your fellow man. People you used to see and work with face to face, be they direct co-workers at an open plan office, or people doing the same thing together but separate at a coworking space, coffee shop, or a library, no longer exist in our minds.
This is why we blog and vlog and instagram. This is why we crave likes and comments and retweets and shares and heart reacts.
We all need a Wilson. We need a character who understands what we’re thinking, and makes it better by hearing it. That makes us feel heard, and if they offer feedback, it’s not feedback that makes them feel as though they weren’t listening. The Wilson Effect is when you feel like your fellow humans aren’t doing what a broken volleyball could: listen and acknowledge you.
The Wilson Effect may even be why some political groups align so easily: they do not debate, they simply blindly agree and absorb and parrot out rhetoric. They believe what they read, and repeat simple responses.
So, how do you combat The Wilson Effect in your working life? The best answer would be “fix the world so it feels more normal” but that’s not within anyone’s power. I’m an engineer, and I’m looking to solve the problem when using tech and talking with people about tech.
So here’s my trick: My goal is to understand what people need: Acknowlegement. They need to know they’re being seen and heard, and sometimes that need breaks known structures. Here are things *I* plan to do to correct this problem on my end. After a few weeks, I’ll revisit this.
- If a person making a statement on something you’ve said, and you agree, the answer is “Right” or “Roger” or “Ack” or something similar.
- If any statement you are asked is not a follow-on question, for clarity read it as “ACK”. Pretend the person you are speaking to has only had a volleyball to talk to before you got to them. They just want to share that they know about the thing you do as well as you do.
- The opposite is true: if you are in general agreement with a person about one of their plans or projects, don’t pollute it with more info. A simple “Okay” or perhaps “Looks like you’ve got this, ask me if you need help” will do it. Let people make their own mistakes.
- “I would” > “You Should”. One of these shares your own experiences and invites questions. The other talks down over a person and suggests you don’t trust them to do their job.
- Short-circuit endless arguments with “let’s have a separate conversation about this”.
- For any conversation with a goal, have an agenda. Callout and response. Follow the structure of it. Let people know that if they have other things to get to, they’ll be gotten to. If people jump ahead, turn them back. Ask questions like “Okay, anything else on this thing specifically?” Even if you’re not the one running the meeting, you can help by only speaking on-topic, and waiting your turn.
- Count to three before you hit enter in text-based mediums. Re-read the thing you’re about to send for typos, and for clarity. It’s not a race. (I almost wish this were a feature in certain messengers, “hold to send”.)
- If someone is rapid-firing you, in text, on a zoom call, or even in a face to face, back them off. Feel free to say “I’ll wait for you to finish before I respond.”
- Answer the question people asked. If it’s yes or no, keep it quick. If it’s more open ended, like “where are we at with this?” start with your summary. “We’re about N percent done. Do you want more details?”
Again, this is not a prescriptive list of how I want everyone around me to behave — it is simply my own set of rules for analysis. When I feel frustration happening from conversation, I can come back to this and see if it’s making me a better communicator. I can re-read my own transcripts and see if I’m following my own advice. And I can see how I feel at the end.