Debating opinions is bad communication

Two safe words in web development are “user error.” Something doesn’t work? Not my problem—it’s user error. And while this does happen, it’s also kind of a cop-out.

I have been the user in many “user error” stories, when a website feature did not work as I expected. I reported the issue to those who could fix it, and was told I was “doing it wrong” and my difficult was simply user error. When you’re having issues, being told you’re wrong isn’t helpful. Undercutting my experience as flawed isn’t a proper fix.

I have been thinking about this a lot this week, following the presidential election. To be honest, I have been thinking about it for the entire election, but it reached a head after Trump became the president-elect. My world became flooded with emotional reactions, both for and against the outcome. And when these two sides clashed, each point of view would one-up the other, like Itchy and Scratchy breaking out bigger and bigger guns to solve their feud.

The same can be said for the open source world. Instead of support requests or feature suggestions being reviewed and given the ol’ pros/cons treatment for consideration, what often happens in forums and Trac tickets is debate. And while spirited collaboration is fantastic, when the first response to your opinion is “No, and here’s why,” it breeds closure, not openness. Closed projects don’t succeed; stop building walls of negative reactions.

I’m not saying every idea is reasonable. Nor grounded in rationality. It’s like when someone close to you expresses self-doubt. They may feel inadequate in life or like an impostor at work. To make them feel better, you immediately point out all the ways their negative feelings about themselves aren’t accurate. This isn’t supporting a loved one—this is debate. You can’t debate someone on their emotions or opinions, because those are theirs, not yours.

Very few things in the world are objective truths. Perception shades everything. I believe in climate change, and so the empirical evidence I find in support of this works to further my opinion. And yeah, science is awesome and I have firm faith in much of it, it can’t explain everything. And sometimes, science is incorrect (at least for a time). There’s always more to learn and more information to extract from a situation.

So when someone says “This app is hard to use” or “I’m scared about what the government might do to me,” don’t jump to proving them wrong with a list of counterpoints. Listen. Empathize. Take the time to let their opinions sink in, and even if you disagree, don’t pounce. And for god’s sake, don’t attempt to assuage their fears with “That’s crazy.” No one likes being called crazy for speaking their mind (even when what they are saying is bat-shit crazy).

The best way for us to move forward productively—whether on an open source project, a work deliverable, or governmentally—is to stop shoving aside the concerns of others. It doesn’t help. It entrenches opinions more deeply and just divides us further. It’s ok to speak your mind, and it’s ok to listen to others’ opinions, even if you disagree. Let’s move beyond “user error” and get to a point where we can stop demonizing the “others,” whomever those others may be.

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