I’ve had a very frustrating set of interactions over the last 3 days, on an open source community mailing list. Doesn’t matter which one, because I think that these things are universal.
I said “here are some ways we can make things better.” Or, at least, that’s what I thought I was saying.
Several people heard “everything is broken, and it’s your fault.”
At the end of several very heated email conversations, it became clear to me that we all agreed on (almost) everything, and were getting hung up on that initial statement. It wasn’t even that the things that I was proposing were opposed, it was that the way that I presented them was perceived as criticism of what people had done for the last few years.
Email is notoriously bad at conveying nuance. This is amplified in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual community. Here’s some practical things that I took away from this conversation – most of which I should have already known
Suggest improvements. Don’t focus on shortcomings
Pointing out breakage is easy. Proposing solutions is where the real work is. Now, sometimes, you need someone to say “this is broken and I don’t know how to fix it.” Those situations are very tricky. Tread lightly.
Focus on what needs improving, not on who made it that way
This sounds easy, but is really hard. There’s always someone who spent hundreds, or thousands, of hours, making the thing the way that it is, and so when you point out that the thing isn’t perfect, that person might take it personally. I honestly don’t know how to avoid that, and this week has shown that very clearly. But I can look back and identify some of the things I did poorly, and apologize for them.
Curb your passion
This one is unintuitive. We need to be passionate about our community. But sometimes when you’ve been pondering something for a few months and arrive with all of that passion, people are more likely to mistake that passion for anger, criticism, and so on.
Yes, some people need to get thicker skins. Don’t read everything I’m saying as that we need to pamper everyone’s bruised feelings. But when people aren’t looking in your eyes, it’s easy to take passion as an attack. We’ve all done it.
I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes from Confucius, who said, “There is honor in the email not sent.”
Yes, he said that. I was there.
Read your email twice before you send it, and delete half of them unsent. This will lead to a better universe, and fewer three-day shouting-fest email threads.