Conversation antipatterns and how to avoid them

Based on our experience observing and participating in discussions, we decided to come up with a list of antipatterns we commonly see as well as possible ways to avoid them. This list certainly isn’t exhaustive and more reflects what we could come up with as we are writing this. Some of these are almost always counterproductive while others can be useful in small doses, but become counterproductive when used too often. This is written for the context of discussing more sensitive social issues, but the majority of these apply to engineering work as well.

  • Not differentiating between major and minor problems. Everyone will always have a large number of viewpoints they hold. Some will be significant issues they strongly believe should be worked on immediately. For example, “Our employer should have more gender neutral bathrooms” is something which we believe should be worked on immediately. Other problems will be seen as minor in comparison and are closer to an item on a wishlist than a problem which needs immediate attention. For example, “Our employer’s restroom policy for trans people should be more accommodating of gender fluidity” falls into the second category for us. While it would be nice to have, we have not been able to think of any good solution for that problem and as a result, it remains on our wishlist. The phrase for this in engineering is “When everything is urgent, nothing is”. To avoid this antipattern, be conscious of how important you think a topic is and convey this to your readers. Let your readers know whether what you are talking about is something very important to you to work on in the near future or whether it is closer to an item on your wishlist.
  • Being unable to accept incremental progress. Many problems, especially social problems, are complex and cannot be solved overnight. These problems are often solved incrementally with each iteration making small improvements. To someone directly affected by an issue, it is understandable and even expected to be frustrated by what looks like progress at a snail’s pace. We personally experience this watching the incredibly slow rate at which people get access to trans healthcare. Unfortunately, approaching conversations with an all or nothing attitude is usually unproductive. While it is possible to change someone’s views or to make them understand your viewpoint, this generally happens in incremental pieces, not all at once. To avoid this antipattern, when entering discussions with others, consider any increased understanding to be a success. If you enter a conversation expecting someone to fully understand your view, you are going to be disappointed at best. At worst, it will cause you to continue to poke and prod the other person with arguments about less important details until the other person walks away, annoyed and emotionally exhausted.
  • Making it emotionally exhausting to disagree, even on minor points. This antipattern involves someone arguing over minor details with someone they almost entirely agree with in the same way they would with someone they strongly disagree with on core issues. An example of this in engineering is someone having a long and intense argument about the colors of buttons on an otherwise excellent design for a web page. Here, the engineer has set a precedent that it is emotionally exhausting to disagree with them by demonstrating that small disagreements will result in long and intense arguments. To avoid this antipattern, recognize where you consider change most important and focus on those points. It is still perfectly acceptable to bring up more minor points where you disagree, but make sure the person you are writing to understands which points are most important to you.
  • Writing a constant stream of negativity. Even if it is all true, listening to a constant barrage of negativity is exhausting and people will eventually stop listening as a self defense mechanism. Instead, determine when negativity will have a large impact and focus your negativity there. Everyone has a limited amount of negative writing they can emotionally handle. If you burn through the emotional energy of others writing about less important topics, they will have no energy left to read your writing on a very important topic. Choosing which topics you want your readers to spend their emotional spoons on is important and ties heavily into the antipattern of not differentiating between major and minor problems.
  • Continuing to argue past the point where nobody’s mind will be changed. Every discussion begins with an exchange of ideas and people considering the ideas of others and how to react to them. Sometimes this results in a complete rejection of the ideas, while other times, it results in someone accepting new ideas and changing their view on a topic. Occasionally, it results in someone initially rejecting the idea, processing the idea over the following months and years, and eventually accepting the idea. Regardless of which case a discussion falls into, at some point people will stop absorbing new ideas. Whether this is because no new ideas are being added or because new information needs to be processed before new ideas can be absorbed again, or for any other reason, the discussion has reached a point where nobody’s mind will be changed. Continuing to argue past this point is counterproductive and not a good use of time or energy for anyone involved. At some point, it is better to accept viewpoints will not be changed and say “I don’t think either of us will change our mind. Here, have a cute picture of kittens instead.” This is true no matter how right you are or how important the topic is. Occasionally, this can serve a useful purpose when onlookers benefit from seeing the issue more clearly, but this should be done with extreme care.
  • Arguing primarily to let people like you know they are not alone. This can be immensely useful in small doses. Often minority groups do need reminders that they are not alone. However, this is not productive when done extensively, for example, repeatedly arguing for this purpose in a long thread. This is especially problematic when the writing is mixed with being unable to accept incremental progress. This often creates a scenario where it becomes emotionally exhausting to disagree with you, especially if you write strong statements disagreeing with relatively minor points. To avoid this antipattern, be mindful about when and how often you argue purely for the purpose of letting others like you know they are not alone.
  • Expecting others to not make mistakes. Expecting perfection rarely leads to productive dialogue. Instead, accept that others will make mistakes and forgive them for mistakes so long as they continue to learn from their mistakes. For example, using the correct pronouns for trans people is a place where everyone will make mistakes occasionally. We sometimes make mistakes when referring to others within our system*. Beyond that, we have had a bad habit of using “she” and “they” interchangeably so have occasionally used the wrong pronouns when referring to others. We recognize the mistake, forgive ourselves for making the mistake, then do our best to ensure it will not happen again. Existing in an environment which demands perfection is exhausting and leads to people avoiding situations where there is the potential for mistakes entirely. Engineering cultures which value blameless postmortems are successful for a reason — this creates an environment where people feel safe taking risks because they know others do not expect perfection.

This list is by no means exhaustive and reflects the ideas we could come up with while writing this more than anything else. While some of these are almost always unproductive, some can serve useful purpose when used sparingly. When these antipatterns are intentionally used, it should be done consciously and with a specific purpose in mind. This was written specifically with written communication in mind, but all of these antipatterns can appear during face to face conversations as well.
* We are plural and there are ~100 of us sharing this brain and body, each with their own name and pronouns. “Plural system” is a term referring to the collective which shares a brain and body. See for more details.

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