Human communication & behavior

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It is an indictment of the state of our discipline that I feel the need to defend human communication and behavior as a vital aspect of getting better at it. And yet, here we are, decades after the women who created our field were sidelined, after IBM decided to equate programming aptitude

First, what code are you going to write? Some code is an experiment, trying a new approach to something, but that is basically lost unless you can communicate it. Most code is meant to be used to make some change in how humans interact with the world. Without understanding enough about human behavior and being good enough at communicating to talk to the people involved and establish what needs to happen, there’s no code to write.

Second, there is a limit to how far a single programmer can go. That limit may be enormous in some cases, but it is there. After that the multiple programmers must cooperate, and that requires they behave and communicate in a way to make that work. And even if a single programmer can get there, is that the right way? The earliest programmers on ENIAC considered working in pairs the normal approach, and this was rediscovered by the extreme programming community in the 1990’s.

And even if you are working by yourself, when you return to your own code six months or a year later, you need to communicate to yourself across time what you did before.

So, the problem is coordinating humans across time and space. First we’ll talk about some underpinnings of behavior, since its is the elicitation or prevention of behavior that our communicate aims at. Then we’ll look at the atomic, individual communication skills to develop, and then at the skills around interactive communication in groups.

Behavioral underpinnings

For programming purposes, communication is to result in particular behaviors happening or happening more often, or in preventing them from happening or making them happen less often. We rarely communicate in the discipline solely for the purpose of transmitting Dadaist poetry. So what drives behavior?

The answer from economics is rational self interest. But what is in someone’s interest may not be at all obvious to you. This may be from lack of information on your part, or just from lack of understanding what has utility to them. A Dane, dealing for the first time with some Asian cultures, may run afoul of the notion of face and thus be entirely unaware of a major piece driving their definition of self interest.

More importantly, behavioral economics adds a footnote to the whole field of economics: “only applies in academic models, any relationship to reality is incidental.” Most behavior is driven by operant conditioning, not any kind of direct evaluation of potential outcomes and personal utility functions.

The more useful scientific field for this purpose is applied behavior analysis, which is the elaboration of operant conditioning. A given behavior has an antecedant which triggers it and a consequence which either reinforces it, if the consequence increases the chance of the antecedant leading to that behavior more often in future, or punishes it, if the consequence would decrease the chance of the behavior. Don’t get hung up on the word “punishment” here. It’s a term of art for anything that will reduce the link between the antecedant and the behavior.

Punishment usually results not in a reduction of the behavior, but in a reduction of the visible behavior. The behavior was established, so something is reinforcing it. If the learner can figure out how to keep getting reinforced for it without you applying punishment, such as by doing it where you can’t see it, the behavior is not going away.

Reinforcement doesn’t have this problem. Experts in training today almost entirely avoid punishment.

What is reinforcing or punishing is individual. There may be common patterns. For instance, most parrots enjoy safflower seeds as a reward. On the other hand, some parrots may treat a scratch on their head as a reward, while others will bite your hand if you try it. Belugas apparently enjoy having their tongue tickled, but only by trainers that they like.

So when you are communicating, focus on trying to provide reinforcement and avoid punishment. At a very crude level, imagine reading, the following two warnings about identifying a common error in C from compiler messages:

  1. “If you’re stupid enough to confuse = and ==, this will go hard for you. Your program will fail to compile with a message like:”
  2. “It’s common to confuse = and ==. Look for these errors to find how to fix it in your program when it happens:”

The first is punishing. The consequence of mixing up = and == is you are judged stupid. The error messages mean that you have failed and the compiler punished you.

The second is reinforcing. First, it established that this is a common error and not a problem with us. This is negative reinforcement, that is, it is removing something unpleasant as opposed to giving something pleasant, which is positive reinforcement. Second, it sets up the error messages as antecedants for a behavior that gets reinforced by the program then compiling.

Individual skills

Now we come to the individual skills you need. The single most important one is active listening. That is, being to elicit information from someone and make sure that you understand what they are trying to tell you. You will have to deal with people whose thoughts are muddled and whose communication skills are poor, and this is the single, essential tool to do so. It is also the step on the way to interactive listening, also known as riffing on each other, improvising, or thinking collaboratively.

Everyone gets told to use active listening in school or coaching, and many people have sadly gotten the impression that it’s repeating someone’s words back to them. Done well, you are not only interpreting the words as you listen and fitting them into what you have already heard, you are examining all you have heard to find where you need to probe to get more or to clarify, where you see contradictions, and how much of the picture you have so far, and you are putting together a mental model of the other person’s communications abilities. And at the same time you are watching how they react to various ways you speak to them or ask questions and see what is reinforcing or punishing for them or you risk turning the experience into an interrogation. Doing it well is hard, intense work and requires practice.