How Might That Be True?

Note: This article is updated at How Might That Be True?

It's obvious in retrospect, but I found a distinction between low-friction communication and high-friction communication.  By low-friction, I mean *person A* doesn't have to work that hard for *person B* to get a point.

I find low friction scenarios are often cases where *person B* starts with the mind-set "how might that be true" and they help *person A* tease out, or make their point.  The starting point is collaboration -- two people working to understand the message.  I find high-friction scenarios are often cases where *person B* starts with the mind-set "let me tell you how you're wrong."

It's really easy among a bunch of engineers to rip ideas apart.  The trick I found is to first ask, "how might that be true?"  This gets over the potential hump that maybe while the delivery was off, there was merit in the message (or a concept needs help to be teased out) and it certainly builds more rapport than starting off as a devil's advocate.

Comments (3)
  1. Anonymous says:

    In general I totally agree that even if an idea is downright terrible it makes it easier for the originator of the idea to admit the mistake and save a little face later on since you’ve given them the benefit of the doubt before starting to test it with an assault of sustained thinking.  

    But this technique isn’t without it’s limits.  Making people feel good, drinking Kool-Aid, and singing Kumbaya together only go so far in terms of actually getting things done.

    Real scientific progress (and successful software engineering projects) seems to happen when everyone anchors themselves to a common objective and are willing to take the beatings, roll with the punches of inconvienent truths and brutal facts along the way, give credit to others who may not have worked as hard but nonetheless were fortunate enough to make discoveries or have ideas come to them, not even really care about the credit compared to the end accomplishment, and even be willing to present ideas you know are totally true even though they represent a setback or a challenge to the status quo and could be so unpopular you wonder if you’re going to be looking for another job soon, without ANY of that ever becoming personal.   The maturity for that type of team dynamic and managers with the integrity to make it happen are rare, but it is possible to do battle over ideas (not people) in the conference room until the right one emerges – and then leave the room as even stronger friends than when you came in together because you battled side by side and achieved victory by pushing the envelope further than anyone else ever has.  You’re still friends and laugh at each other’s jokes in the break room and everything even though anyone looking into the conference room might have thought otherwise.  They just don’t understand that deeper shared conviction you have.  It is very cool feeling when you know you are on a team like that.  

  2. Here’s a brief set of success patterns I’ve shared with a few colleagues. These are the patterns I see

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