Changing Your Mind is Not My Job

There is a popular meme that has been going around for years now, This is in fact close to heart for every passionate technologist. Most of use have either been the guy at the desk, or an innocent passer-by willing to enter the conversation. With fairly expected results.

It was sometimes around 2004 or 2005 that I had the privilege of attending my first Ruby meetup, where I finally met the Fingertips fellows. Before the meetup I have posted an announcement on a forum I was frequenting at the time.

Not a half an hour later I have received an email with roughly the following content:

Hi! I see that you would like to do a presentation about Rails and Ruby. I am currently using PHP. Please convince me that I need to switch - because it isn’t any better than PHP, right? I mean, why would I?
so and so

Now, this was in Russian so the exact wording was a bit different. And Eastern-European people (myself included) often fall into the trap of “proving someone wrong on the Internet”, and into the trap of “teaching others how they are misguided”, and other traps we won’t get to right now. But still: this struck a nerve.

There are ways to ask questions. A multitude, in fact. And other people’s opinions are genuinely interesting and can help us uncover blind spots in our own thinking. Some detail we have overlooked. A different angle from a divergent societal group. An unintended consequence. A piece of context we could have just failed to register. The issue then lies with the intent of asking a question.

You can ask a question and be ready to listen to the response - solicit opinions, if you will. The most important thing, in that setting, is to listen to the opinion. It is not the matter of them convincing you of something, because it would not be an exchange of opinions - it would be debate. A debate can get real adversarial, real quick.

Therefore, it is very, very important not to jump to refutations of the opinions you disagree with. For disagreeing, there is time and place. If you want to “hash out” a problem - sure, have at it. Get into a conversation with a clear, demonstrated intent of “hashing this thing out”. Then both sides bring their points, there is a deadline to end the conversation (there is? right?), and there is an expectation of a friendly, but firm argument. When you just ask for opinions, or are genuinely curious about the other person’s point of view, you are not obligated to either affirm or refute their opinion. Just listen, make mental notes, and see whether they are saying something that resonates.

Being a good listener is crucial in those situations. Especially if the other person seems to be woefully wrong, uninformed and non-empathetical. Exactly those are moments when listening matters. The “but… but!…” can be saved for another time. Remember that the other person is likely spending time on providing their opinion too. They might not have time, nor the energy, to enter a fully fledged debate. They may hold conflicting views. If you are going into it for the lulz - sure, go ahead, but don’t feel bad if they refuse to participate.

And so, on that evening in the early-aughts, I sent a reply:

Dear so and so, Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately I do not have the time, nor the inclination, to convince anyone of anything at the moment. I have no obligation to prove anything to you, and I wish you all the success with the tools you are already happily using.
Have a great day.

And that was that.

Inspired by.