Learning to Respond: Noticing our Reactions

In this new series, Learning to Respond, we will explore crafting sound and justified thinking. We begin today by becoming aware of our reactions.

Constructing recommendations with other people is an essential systems design skill. Unfortunately, when we engage with other people’s thinking, we tend to react rather than respond. Reacting is a mental and/or emotional contraction, a pulling back rather than leaning into understanding. Reacting encourages circuitous discourse and endless bikeshedding. Reacting invites fallacious logic and cognitive biases.

Our reactions make our unsound conclusions seem reasonable. This matters … our conclusions end up in production.

Our reactions are intermingled with our opinions. Sharing opinions is my favorite part of geek culture. I’m not a big socializer. At 9 pm, I’m not heading out to dinner or a party. I’m heading to bed, carrying my Kobo.

Except at tech conferences. There, I’m wide awake, long past my toddler bedtime. I’m with my tribe and we endlessly discuss ideas. Last May in Bucharest, I left the after-party and headed straight to the airport for my early-morning flight.

The downsides of opinion

We are a tribe with strong opinions and, in my experience, we are very attached to them. When it comes to systems thinking, being opinion-driven has its downsides.

We debate dualities

Our opinions are usually structured as “for or against”, “yes or no”, “right answer or wrong answer”, “option A vs option B”. Nuance and nonlinear thinking styles are ignored.

We ignore context

Very few things in life, including in tech, are Always Right or Always Wrong. Most things depend on the context. What is the best tool? It depends! Most discussions don’t focus on understanding what it depends on.

We focus on “wrong”

When someone is accused of being wrong, even the most emotionally intelligent people will get defensive. — Karen Kwong

When I am in a group of people who don’t build tech, their responses to me are surprisingly kind and curious. Sadly, I’ve become acclimated to discussions that immediately point out what I said wrong. In the 5th most popular XKCD comic “Duty Calls”, the character stays up late to fix something “important”. “Someone is wrong on the internet!”

We are emotional

For a culture that prides itself on Spock-like science logic, people sure can get incensed about a lot of things. I hear endless disdain for other people’s thinking, especially toward people who don’t code. Grudges go deep and the backchanneling is rampant. I’m fairly sure Spock wouldn’t be gossiping in Slack about ideas he doesn’t like.

Everyone gets triggered

Our reactions to thinking have strong mental, emotional, and physical components. Reactions are unavoidable and totally human. Here are examples of situations where I feel reactive …

  • At the end of a workshop on developing heuristics for systems architecture, the first “question” in the Q&A is “This isn’t architecture.”
  • An engineering colleague describes the team leadership work I do as “secretarial”.
  • An engineer I’ve never met before tells me that my recommendation, which we haven’t discussed, “can’t work”. “I know, I worked at Google.”
  • A product-focused person speaks to me (in every meeting) as if I report to her and will be implementing whatever she tells me to build.
  • I’m told by a project manager who wants to control technology design “You only have this ‘architecture’ role because the CTO likes you.”

No doubt you have your own list of thought triggers that send you spinning. “Just ignore it” is bad advice. Thinking is a whole-body experience. We miss important information if we ignore our reactions. We need to notice our reactions but we also need to consider them before acting.

Reactions will rarely get you what you need

Immediately communicating a reaction is like putting out a fire by pouring gasoline on it. Reactions trigger more reactions, which is why there is so much noise in our work life and so little signal. Some things to consider …

When two people from different contexts communicate, this type of collision is common

The examples I listed above feel pointed because that’s how I experience them. The speaker may have had a different, and understandable, intention. Sometimes someone is being a jerk. More often, two people miscommunicate because they don’t have a shared perspective; they are looking at the situation from very different viewpoints. As they react to each other, the miscommunication increases rather than illuminating their different points of view.

Once you take something personally, you stop being curious (and, usually, moving forward)

When someone says something utterly wrong and ridiculously disrespectful … your reaction is unlikely to help you stay focused on what needs to get done. When the words are a mental arrow shot at you, all your energy becomes focused on the wound. It takes practice to heal and move on.

We hold onto our reaction

The moment someone tells me I’m wrong, and I’m not, I want to prove otherwise. A part of me holds onto that transaction. A better option would be to take what I need from their feedback and leave the rest.

So … what do we do?

First, we notice when we are reacting! We watch our thinking and feeling and discover the warning signs of a reactive pattern. You’ll see that your reactive patterns are predictable and even tedious. Here are some practices that might help you work with them …

The 24-hour rule

This is one of my favorite practices. Wait 24 hours. For example, when someone sends me an email that triggers a reaction, I don’t answer for 24 hours. The next day, when I read the exact same email, I’m often surprised by how differently I hear what the person is saying.

The stories don’t have to be the same

Sitting in a restaurant, I feel frustrated and upset because a friend is standing me up. I flip-flop between concern for her well being and mentally chewing her out. I feel foolish for waiting 45 minutes before I give up and leave.

Later, she calls to tell me she was standing on the side of the road in the pouring rain with a flat tire and a broken cell phone, trying to flag down a passing car to call for help. This doesn’t make my experience invalid. Our stories don’t have to be the same. 

Go for a walk or take a nap

Have you ever worked for six hours trying to solve a problem, gave up, went to bed and when you woke up … knew how to fix it? Or went out for pizza and the answer came to you? The same magic works when we are stuck in a reaction. Stretch, move, dance, go for a walk, ride your bike, play with the dog, read a book, take a nap … move your mind into your body. You’ll think better afterwards.

Write a letter or take a different perspective

I was once embroiled in a situation best described as a dumpster fire. I was drowning in my reactions. One morning, I woke up wondering “if I were the incoming CTO, what would I do?” I wrote down my strategy. I wrote what I would say to the people involved and reworked how I would say it. When I was done, I knew what I needed to do. I didn’t share any of what I wrote but I did respond differently from then on.

To be continued …

Later in this series, we will describe how to create a response. First, we’ll explore the patterns that keep us stuck in reactive thinking, beginning with logical fallacies.

Finding Quiet Strength: Emotional Intelligence, Embodied Awareness

by  Judith Kleinman

While I usually shy away from books that teach a method, or derive from a method, I liked this book. Especially reconceptualizing what “strength” means.

Don’t Bite the Hook

by Pema Chodron

From the Buddhist Nun who has taught the world how to be less reactive during difficult times.

Emotional Intelligence at Work

taught by Six Seconds (Josh Friedman)

Honestly, just watching the introduction made me feel more relaxed. Yes, this course will ask you about your feelings. Not a popular topic in tech culture. But it’s difficult to respond with emotional intelligence without cultivating emotional intelligence.

There is no separation of mind and emotions; emotions, thinking and learning are all linked.”

Eric Jensen

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