Listening to Tone Instead of Words

My career has put me into in an odd position when it comes to to the concept of “truth”. It’s not that “truth” escapes me, but rather truth is generally irrelevant.  I need to know the approximate direction of truth in a situation, but getting to anything more specific is a waste of time.

As I’ve said before, people who don’t have anything to do with their time talk.  They talk a lot.  They talk about hypocrisy.  They yabber about personality traits.  Much of the time they drone on about truth.  They go on, and on, and on, and on, about truth. The reason being is that truth is insanely difficult to get at.  So by focusing on something that there is never going to be a adequate answer for they can feel self righteous about never getting down to work.  “How can I start working if I don’t know the truth?”

The problem with getting to truth is that it takes a long time to get to, and many times is irrelevant to the job at hand.  Do you really need to know what actually happened, or do you just need a general idea?

I learned to give up on truth when I was supporting my clients.  In the beginning whenever a system failed I really tried to fully understand what had happened.  The problem was when talking with end users that their egos would become a stumbling block.  They would feel stupid, or incompetent and not want to come off that way so they would spout nonsensical explanations for what had happened.  They would be frustrated being held hostage to systems they did not understand and so would vent their anger on the only human that was responsible for the system in retaliation.  They did stupid things, knew they did stupid things, and  would then just issue a stream of BS. Trying to dig deep with end users just wasn’t worth the time, and I found if I could figure out the direction of truth everything became much easier. So I learned to listen HOW people talked vs what they actually said.

In the support world this meant:

  • If a person came off as shocked, frightened and a bit manic it generally meant they had been doing their daily tasks and then the system just took a dump. They’re high strung because they need to get their work done, and the system they depend on has died.  The nerves show as their mind races trying to figure out how they’re going to get their work done now that the PC is down. Fundemantaly they are afraid of being punished for something that was not their fault.
  • If a person is annoyed and testy it generally meant they were doing something that they had the right to do.  They know enough to know their actions where the proximal cause of the problem, but they feel secure in knowing they were within their rights.  Maybe they ran an OS update, installed a plugin, or opened a file from a trusted person. They’re assertive because they feel they are in the right, and have zero issue arguing back if someone tries to call them out.
  • If a person is generally relaxed and kind of cocky then they did it, they know they did it, and they know they were not supposed to have done whatever the hell it is they did. In their eyes they just did what everyone else is doing anyway, and they just got caught on it.  They’re not going to be the fall guy on this, and hop to geek this is why we pay you anyway.

Human’s are dynamic so there’s more to reading people than this, but you get the general idea. Why this becomes important as a professional is that I can start coming up with a game plan even before I sit in front of the computer.

In the first case with the nervous person if I figure that whatever they did they did in due course of their work then I need to spend the time to figure out what the actual problem is.  Is it a Registry error, an anti virus issue, or the print drivers screwing things up.  If one person is having this issue then it is very likely that more will too.  By finding the cause now and documenting it it will be an easy fix for when it happens to someone else’s system.  So the general work flow is to find the problem, document the problem, send out a notification to the other techs on my team, and possibly other employees.

In the second case where they are annoyed it’s likely the core issue is one of system responsibility.  I need to find the problem, but then also figure out how to prevent future issues like this one.  Is the user a local administrator on the PC.  Can the policies be modified to give them the privileges they need, without opening the box too far? If an update crashed the computer is it time for a centralized patch management policy and system?  Is it time to connect the Windows systems to a domain for better security? In this instance the problem needs to be found and solved, but then I need to figure out the larger reason for why something like this happened and come up with a plan for how to prevent this in the future.  This then needs to be presented at a meeting of the parties involved to discuss the problem, solution, and whether it’s worth the resources to permanently solve.

If the person is cocky then the system gets a wipe and reload followed by a harsh talk with their manager.  If the person was willing to do one inappropriate thing with their laptop it’s likely they’ve done a dozen others.  Even if I fix the problem in front of me there’s probably a worm, or 2, or 20 that I don’t see.  I can only fix the problems I see and this person has made clear there’s a lot I don’t.  A wipe and reload allows me to be comfortable that the system is back up to standards, and acts as the only punishment I can met out for wasting my time.  Afterwards the talk with their boss is because this is fundamentally a management issue and not a technical one.

This way of thinking about conversation has followed me into the startup world.  I spend countless hours talking with founders and business people and simply do not have the time to do any kind of in-depth due diligence.  When the person is talking about their startup, product or idea it would take far too long to dive deep enough into the subject matter to really be able to say whether they know what they are talking about.  If I decide I want to work with someone I’ll do the research needed just to make sure there are no boogie men waiting to get me, but it’s almost perfunctory. What I’m really looking for is how they talk.

To be frank I like my geeks tired.  People who really believe in what they are doing, have found a product fit, and are pretty sure the direction they are headed in just have a stare to them.  N00b’s think about “startup life” as some never ending party.  The reality is it’s never ending work.  Congratulations!  You’ve figured out how to change the world, and make a crap ton of money!  Now you just need to work 16 hours a day, 29 days a month for the next 3-10 years and you’ll be all set… There’s this way they act.  One minute they look exhausted.  Then I bring up something about what they are doing and their eyes will light up, and they’ll start talking about all of these really cool things for about 10 minutes until their smartphone beeps.  They’ll pull it out, look at the screen, and then their face will fall… “F’… I gotta go deal with this…”

You also have the folks that are bouncy as hell.  The skies the limit.  They’re going to take over the world.  Nothing can stop them!  These people many times have a good, or even great idea, but no clue about the industry or market space.  They’re so focused on their product they don’t bother scoping the competition, seeing why similar startups failed, or many times bothering to find out if enough people care about the problem they are solving.  They can answer any question you may have, and 20 the you didn’t think about so long as you focus on them, the startup and the product.  These people’s success many times has more to do with the outside world than their follow through.  If you know the larger market and think what they’re doing has a chance then it could be interesting, but don’t expect them to be able to adapt to the outside pressures.

Then you get the founders that don’t really seem like they’re talking to you.  They look at you.  Their mouth flaps in your general direction, but it almost seems like they are trying to convince themselves as to what they are saying.  Every statement seems to end in a verbal question mark.  They are telling you how it is… maybe… It sounds more like they are trying to convince themselves.  They’ll use examples that don’t really make sense.  They’ll drop numbers that sound solid, but you feel kind of lost as to where those numbers came from.  There’s a lot of “obviously” statements.  Where they’ll tell you one truth that you agree with, but then expand upon that to say that obviously something else is true.  It’s like watching a magician.  You saw the person teleport from point A to point B, but you’re eyes just don’t comprehend how that happened. These are people I’m very polite to, and then run from.  Tech and Startups are not magic.  They are about probabilities.  We can argue probabilities all day long, but as soon as “magic happens” becomes part of the equation it’s time to run.

For my career I have learned to focus on how things are said vs. what is actually said and it has been invaluable.  As someone on the spectrum it is very easy to out talk me.  A caffeinated nine year old can probably argue to the point my head ends up just swimming in words.  As my brain tries to connect dots that simply have no connections the other side many times just keeps throwing out words in the view that like a boxing match it’s the number of attacks that count.  I think this is where many geeks “lose”. They feel that if they cannot respond, and rebut then obviously they are incorrect.  So they submit.  As someone with work to do submission isn’t an option for me.  A problem not solved today is a dozen problems I’ll have to solve next week.  Wasted time or resources on a startup or project I don’t trust cannot be used on something I find valuable.  So I need a way to find what’s important to me in making decision.

Figuring out the direction of “truth” allows for the flexibility to not get caught up in details. You just need an approximate idea of what’s going on.  To get there I’ve learned that it’s far more important to listen to how things are said instead of what is being said.  Once you get the gist of what’s going on then as a professional you can ask the specific questions that you care about, and focus on the specific answers being given. At the end of the day it’s easier, gives better results, and ends in fewer hurt feelings.

 

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