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RailsConf 2019 - Hacking Verbal Communication Systems by Ryan Alexander

Ryan Alexander
Back-end developer at Money Advice Service
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RailsConf 2019
April 30, 2019, Minneapolis, USA
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Ryan Alexander
Back-end developer at Money Advice Service

About the talk

RailsConf 2019 - Hacking Verbal Communication Systems by Ryan Alexander


Our native systems of conversational flow control might work fine for talking face to face, but they start to have problems when put into many of the conversational scenarios that arise as part of working on a modern development team. Other groups have faced similar challenges and come up with ways to facilitate and improve communication. I'm going to focus on a simple system of hand signals used by the Occupy movement who adapted them from the Quakers. These hand signals mitigate a number of problems with group discussions, including problems of communication over a laggy connection, and working with remotees.

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All right. So hello. This is going to be packing verbal communication systems. So if you're not here for that talk might be in the wrong place. What do a quick bit of housekeeping for 12? My name is Ryan Alexander. My pronouns are he and him I am the lead back-end developer for a cross-functional Ruby on Rails team based in London, but I grew up right here in Minneapolis, which is why I don't sound much like I'm from London to sound like from here Factor went to South High School and I went to the U of M where I got a highly technical degree in music theory and composition.

Here is how to get ahold of me. Please. Don't you don't have to capitalize the RNA part. That's just for clarity. I'm on Twitter and an email. There's a hashtag that I put in full corner. If you use that specifically if you want to like give me some feed apocalypse about the talk on social media has I believe that both the slides and a video of this talk will be going up about the month of the conference. They're going to handle that and even better. I'm being live streamed. Reference some please do that and please do I get hold me.

I'm this is only the second time. I have given this talk. The first time was about three years ago at the lead developer conference in London. I really thought it would kind of be a one-off thing but the fee but that I got and continue to get in fact someone talk to me about this talk a little e 4 days ago and it really made me super happy has been really encouraging and it's the reason why I thought to apply to give this talk again. I've been putting a lot more content in and I'm kind of doing a deep dive on a number of things. I just didn't get a chance to go go through before the

first time and I would really like to encourage all of you to give me that feedback. It's really encouraging for me. It's probably true of every speaker going to see at the conference. But Richard has been really helpful for me. I also want to say that I really like being at a conference with a strong code of conduct. That means a lot to me and in particular if there's anything in my talk that you find might be other ring or not welcoming. I really want to know about it so I cannot do it again. That is that is super important. And also if you have

feedback think might be better everything that I love to hear it cuz it looks like this is something to tell people and I'd like to continue to help you not wanting to get in the way of that. Alright, I would like to talk to you about how to improve our conversations. This is what Google gives me as a definition of conversation. The word I would really like for all of us to pay attention to in the definition that is exchanged conversations are not meant to be a one-way thing. They are made up of multiple ideas. If we want to bring these diverse sets of expertise on our

teams to Barron our goals individuals don't just need to be heard their ideas need to interact there needs to be a back-and-forth and a lot of the time that's going to be happening through conversations and specifically what I want to talk about is how that back-and-forth happens. So I'm going to take two related systems. I'm going to dive into him. First one is flow control by which I mean who's getting to talk? When do they get to talk? And how is that being determined? And the second one is going to be consensus modeling which is how we figure out what the group wants.

Let's start with low control. How does everyone in a conversation determine who's going to talk? And when? The short answer is that we all do kind of but we do it collectively and the person actively talking tends to have more of the decision-making power. In fact or even doing it right now. I am I this is a one-way conversation and I appreciate the irony of doing a one-way conversation about having multiple ways conversations not lost on me, but there's still feedback happening. I'm looking at all of you paying attention to your physicality. I'm seeing if

you're looking at me if you're smiling if you're nodding really appreciate it. It lets me know what's going on. What's your physicality? Like the longer answer is where we start to think about things that we can hack things we can make better. That's this. Everyone at the same time is running an algorithm in their head about who should talk and when and then communicating our own idea of what that should be through body language short signals facial expressions a lot of different things. That sounds like a mess it is.

It works most of the time kind of. For some people better than for others, and I think an example might help here. So let's go to Ireland. But I was 19 years old. I had saved up enough money to travel around Europe for about 3 months on the cheap. I also had a friend who offered to move to Paris and offer to put me up. So the stars were aligned. I had a chance to go around the UK France made it to the Netherlands made it to Germany, but in Ireland something really odd happened and I have to be specific about this. It's

not all of Ireland. It was just this one little village a place called bunclody. You can see it on the map. That's where I first started to become aware of our flow control systems. Also, this was a long time ago. So if you decide to take a trip to including it doesn't happen, please don't at me. I couldn't hold a conversation. I try but every time I started talking I do for a little bit and then suddenly stopped this happened all night the other locals I were speaking with we're just as surprised and to be clear they had no problem talking to each other. This was clearly a

combination of me and them for the life of me. I couldn't figure out what's happening and figure it out later, but it have to do with conversational flow control. So here's what happened. I just be sitting in the pub be chatting with someone at a time from Minneapolis am doing a bit of traveling just kind of looking around about my socks and with me going to try a little bit of buck out. So I did you want to ride with you. So yeah, I've been in Ireland for about a week and really liked it is so beautiful out here and it's just such a great chance to update you. What you can't see that

demonstrations what the other person was doing someone to show you a real quick. They were doing this when I would not not be talkin that go like this. They were doing a sharp intake of breath. Now that was there it go ahead keep talking. I'm paying attention. I'm into this signal but for me culturally that was I really need to say something really quick. Can you just get in there for a second? And of course, so what I saw that signal I went hate no problem buddy clip tell me what's going on and they're like, why did you do that? I just I just gave you that let's keep talking all of this was

happening only Sunday consciously and it was really confusing. That person's acknowledgement signal was my request interrupt and I was even asking for that with my inquisitive had not even better. They were understanding that and giving their own Standard Act, but it was messing me up into all night. My conversations stopped and started like a person driving stick shift is only ever driven automatic. And that was when I started to realize something really important about our Elder rhythms. We have different algorithms. We tend to think that we have the same algorithms but

really don't in fact, sometimes they can be so different that they start to seriously interfere like in bunclody now in the case of bunclody. It was a really clear example of it. Just a wrecking the conversational flow. What was systems like this they often just keep working even when there's conflicts and we tend not to notice that it's just not being as off. To be fair. Sometimes don't even have a shared opinion on what is really optimal for a conversation. Even if we did have the same algorithms we would all be working from radically different sets of

information highly subjective estimates of the importance of what is to be said and by fuma in general, we all think what we have to say is pretty important. Quick confession. This is not an original hack. Most of us have been doing a version of this hack since we were kids. In fact that childhood Association is something that makes some of us a bit more reluctant to take it on because it kind of feels inequitable, but I'm going to try to convince you that it's worth doing. Here they are. These are the Occupy

together hand signals when you get a little bit of history about them. The Occupy Movement did not invent these signals either. These were actually adopted from Quakers who have been using them for a long time and some other large group meetings. There are basically ate symbols the Occupy Movement took them on because they were put into a very interesting situation. Some of the protests had local ordinances passed to try to keep them silent make it more difficult for them to organize a protest specifically they were they had artificial amplification band. They couldn't have done this. So they

adopted to make all the human megaphone which meant that one person would talk and then people who were standing kind of just at the range of hearing would then repeat that for people who are further out this of course completely broke the flow of conversation and they need something to allow there to be interactions. real quick lyrics for symbols for for flow control speaking and four symbols for consensus modeling feeling The first one is just dissed. This is what it looks familiar. It's like you're back in school. That means I want to talk next. I want to bring

up the next topic next big thing. I would like to speak. There's this one which is I would like to speak on the topic that is currently being spoken about I would like to contribute. I want to go into the conversation. There's this one which is my favorite one. This is clarification. This is I want you to keep talking and I want to keep participating but I don't understand something and I need you to explain it to me this example for this is someone's just use an acronym you have no idea what they're talking about, you know what them to stop but you really need to find out this one. This

one usually gets a dress right away because it's basically keep conversation flow, but let's get a room that there's this one, which is basically your Meandering a bit. Can you can you stay on topic? the other four are the feeling ones so they're like I don't like it. I do like it. This is great. I oppose this and this one which is you need to stop talking cuz I need to get out of here. Something is talking to your talk about conversation needs to stop for some reason in a professional setting you are rarely going to see this and

hopefully you're not going to get into a situation where you see this But do everyone a favor and leave them in because of this and this can be a safety net for people who might not have another way to express that this conversation is done into a difficult terratrike. And remember your algorithms are not the same as other people's you do not know what might make somebody else need to get out of a conversation. One of the other things really nice is that this one gives you a chance to do something that you don't usually get to do the conversation, which is you have a positive cut

out. If everyone in the room is going like this. Guess what you can shut up you got there. It's great. This is really useful for people who might be prone to over explaining or might even have anxiety issues and can't pick out the people are in agreement with them super helpful and keeps them from falling into the Trap where they've gotten that optimal consensus and now they're starting to ruin it by talking too much afterwards. Not that I ever do that. illustrate how they supposed to help conversations and we'll take a look at what my are look at what I like

to think are two of the major flaws and kind of our Collective native algorithms and they are race conditions in jerks I'm actually really pleased I made the slide I changed it from the original one. I used a slightly more. Crude word then jerks and I found out since that this entire track has a jerks as a theme, but I'm super happy about that. So I want any rate. freeze conditions We will as part of a conversation put in small or longer pauses to indicate that we either want an acknowledgement or that we're done talking sometimes other things.

We also sometimes don't put those Paws in as a way to Barrel through and try to keep people from interrupting us when we do it people get really nervous. And oh my God, why would you give me a call? I really want to say something. I'm kind of jerk. Are you? So that works both ways. Also, this is one of the reasons why public speaking is so scary for us because right now I know that I am breaking an unspoken contract, which is I'm trying to have a conversation with you and I never giving you the stick and I am currently feel a bit like a jerk for doing it. These pauses that we

put into conversation represent a starting pistol scenario a race condition once they're fired the race is on. What if it takes an extra second or two for those signals to reach somebody else in the conversation? These are short pauses and he didn't even a small bit of latency can screw things up. You can see this happening with two groups of people are talking over remote connections and you can really see it happening when you have two or more small groups of people talking over one of those magic Windows you ever been like in an office of connected to

another office. Have you watched our conversation works on that happens in general? It's about about about about about about about about as much as possible. That's not what happens does the people on one side of that Magic Window have this inherent advantage in the race condition. They can pick up the token faster than anybody else. The symbol hack mitigates this problem by removing the starting pistol. You can put up your hand at the moment you realize you want to either enter the flow of concrete went into the flow

of conversation and you can do that because you don't have to interrupt the conversation itself to publish that signal it also helps you listen because you can spend more attention to the content of what is being said and less attention on trying to catch when that pauses just going to come up and be ready off the starting point. But even when everyone's here in that same starting point at the same time, some of us are just faster off the mark in fact some of us. Don't even wait for the pistol which brings us to the jerks.

Just to be clear everyone who is good at not everyone who is good at interrupting is a jerk but interrupting someone else is kind of a jerk thing to do even worse when someone jumps that starting pistol everyone else just doesn't even bother to try and Signal they just in visibly go back to waiting again. We only see the current Speaker being stepped on not all the people who were waiting to talk. And those are disproportionately the more marginalized voices. And again, this is for the symbols can help in three ways. They mean you don't have to step on

somebody else's speech to make your bedtime to the conversation. They allow everyone to see all of the people who might wish to speak. This also moves into consensus modeling a bit because when you see how many people are waiting to speak it can give you a sense of the group really wants to pause and get a little bit more down with this conversation. They also require you to classify the nature of your Intrepid of my favorite things. So that someone who needs clarification within the current context can be prioritized over someone who just wants to do want to talk about this thing

or someone who just wants to move on to the next thing and a lot of us. We kind of do that privatization already with physicality. We kind of take it as the more someone looks like they need to pee the more we think it's a c I did not intend that to Ryan seriously. good ideas and Concepts Do not magically imbue The Originators with the power to elegantly and effectively insert them into the flow of conversation. Interrupting is a skill and it is a skill that throughout their lives. Some people are rewarded for doing

and others are punished for doing even worse those determined that those terminations of who gets rewarded and who gets punished follow along some very sexist and racist lines. Just letting the person who is good at interrupting go ahead and interrupt in no way guarantees a better conversation and stands a very good chance of perpetuating some very crappy inequities. Let's talk about consensus modeling. One of the tricky things about this topic is that for any given conversation? There's usually two layers of

consensus going on. The first layer is the obvious one. That's the one that we're actually talk. Amazing hands were in that state. Do we agree on the topic? Are we are we are we not with it to be opposed it all that stuff. That's the first one to cover on that one. But there's a second layer that is not so straightforward and that's what he's hand signs start-stop signal up and work their level. Do we agree? Do we not do we not agree? But that second layer conversation. Is are we find a keep talking about this? Do we want to talk about something else? That's where those

second set of symbols start to do kind of a bit of double duty. Normally in a conversation both of these consensus signals are sent by a body language and tone of voice sometimes when things get too ahead will move them along with explicit statement. We need to decide soon. I don't care put mushrooms on the whole thing. I'll just pick them off myself. These symbols are like a subtitle track for the physicality threat, which is important because of these sets of physical physical science can also be culturally different like in bun clothing. Adjusted be clear these

subtitles like subtitles. These symbols don't replace those physical signs, but rather they are overlaying them. And that overlaid doesn't just help in situations of culturally different symbols. Many neurodiverse people find it much more difficult to parse body language and doing so in a real-time fashion in order to incorporate that feedback into these signals and use them to navigate the conversational flow is extra hard. As a result, they don't get the same chance to participate. I'm pretty sure I'm preaching to the choir here in this room,

but just in case someone further afield is watching this on the live streamer video recording. If you work in technology. And you think that you don't work with her diverse people or worse you do and you think that it's not up to you to make your workplace more inclusive of them. You are part of the problem. homestretch how we doing? Couple of points that I'd like to kind of cover about implementing this things that you keep in mind. You can do this with an explicit for the facilitator. Pretty much over here. Everyone here is work with a scrum Master, right? So you're familiar with

the concept of someone who's there? Who's kind of theredpill State Facility to process to you know, Shepherd things and conversations are a process. These symbols work great for someone acting in the role of a facilitator. In fact, you can make their job easier in a way. That means more people might be able to take on that role in the first place. Although some extent the same principle of the in retrospective so they shouldn't be run by someone who has a you know, kind of an opinion. The uninvolved should run the retrospective also applies

here. One of the things that was the one that things about the implementation of the Occupy hand signals what and that works with explicit facilitators little we can also be mindful of it is something called the progressive stack. So the progressive stack is an attempt to be explicit about bringing out marginalized voices. It's pretty simple. You just pick the people you did haven't heard from first. And in the case of a lot of people you haven't heard from first you pick the people who you think you most haven't heard

from historically first. Really really really easy now again, keep in mind what the problem when you do is this because the people who have put their hands up is also volunteered you do sometimes want to be mine for the fact that some people don't want to participate and calling people out to participate when they don't want to participate can also be a negative thing. But if they put their hand up that's usually a good sign that you know, they're good to go. Every system has its limitations. If someone in your group can't see

the people raising their hands or if you're on an audio only connection. These symbols won't help you. If you have an active chat room as part of your audio connection like slack does you can use the symbols are similar in the room as part of how you're doing the conversation. There are in fact a number of bots that have been written to kind of manage this and they will even Implement some form of the progressive stack at the very least. They can do things like make sure that when someone raises their hand at someone who has not yet taken a turn at the wheel that they can be pop to the top

of the list. These hand signals are in just one at a load of former a formal app conversational flow systems. Each of these other systems will also offer some of the same benefits that being said one of things that I like about the hand symbols is that they're pretty simple. Try to keep things light and be wary of the person who tries to get you to go full Robert's Rules of Order. Cuz usually they'll be the only person in the room who knows how to use Robert's Rules of Order and that

means they're just trying to trade one advantage for another. What is a little bit faster than I expected? That's okay. I have kind of a twist ending for you on this. I've actually been hacking you with this conversation. Those semi-conscious algorithms that I talked about. Their adoptive just like us. Literally just introducing the concept that different kinds of interrupts should be prioritized over others means that concept will it to some extent get rolled into your algorithms and the

algorithms of anyone else that you talked about this with? It opens up questions, like did you need clarification or did you want to move on to another topic and easier cussed question to ask a valuable question to ask but a lot easier to ask when they already understand what you mean by it. Marathon clothing Next day in 1:40 when I woke up all the sudden. I have the conversations just fine. I adopted my brain figured it out and most of us will do it the same. because of that adaptation

a lot of these techniques can become self obsolete in using them overtime build better conversational habits, and eventually you'll find that the formal systems become less needed. But do remember that if somebody new comes in they won't have that same experience or context. They also won't have the adaptations that have now occurred in your algorithm from incorporating these signals. So be ready to fall back to something more explicit to help them. Don't let your new system become a secret handshake cuz that can suddenly make this whole thing have the

exact opposite effect as people come in and have even more of a disconnect as to how how much will conversation their algorithm is. So different from yours don't make the new people have to figure it out through gas work. Give them signpost give them directions. everyone brings value be intentional about your culture and you'll get more of it. Thank you. I have implemented these flights a number of times these symbaloo number of times and we were discouraged from doing a lot of explicit questions. But

since I went through the slides a little bit fast and I was expecting to I am happy to take some questions if people would like them. I will also try to repeat the questions for the benefit of the viewing audience. Is that please So the question is about using more common signals, maybe once they're a little bit closer a field where you're coming from. Absolutely like everything's I talked about what these symbols is not so specific to the symbol. You'll get that benefit from other other other systems of them as well. The important thing is to communicate them and to get everyone onto kind of a

A a common page on them the subtitle metaphors really important. List them up. Also keep in mind that that subtitling effect can actually help number to versus individual start to connect the signals that they're seeing and having trouble interpreting to an explicit statement of what they are and also help anyone to do that. Like if I had someone they're basically saying if if the people in one Chloe had kind of fun to make a note really that's I want you to keep talkin by plastic assigned going. This is the keep talking symbol Ida Ida caught up that night as

opposed to in the next morning. But yeah, feel free to use whatever you want. Just make sure that you kind of standardized it and give everyone a way to do it. Do I know of any good video chat platforms that digitize this that digitizes symbols in some way Zoom, which a lot of our teams use because it is better at group video chatting with them slacks internal stuff is kind of sucked on the falls at kind of Falls over after about eight or nine people on Zoom action incorporates the hand that you just put up when you want to speak next and that actually

has been useful for us. Like I said, there's Bots that you can do but in terms of a video conferencing itself, I don't know anyone that does that You can utilize the Simpson with the question was your working with remote teams and you have a bit more of these latest issues coming up. And is there something we can do in those video channels to handle that these symbols do work across chat rooms, so you can actually just using the chat with it does require people to split their attention a bit. Excuse me. It's warm up here.

And but but you can you can just use them directly as symbols and say want to talk next and things like that. I'm almost every chats chat system comes with a video chat some system comes with a text chat that you can put these symbols into cross-cultural communication may also be a factor in there are books written about that. But generally I just put the symbol. I just use the symbols in the the chat window of the video chat room. It does mean people have to split the retention of it anybody else questions. Alright, thank you very much.

Please do give me feedback on this. I would love to hear more about it, and I really appreciate time. Thank you very much.

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