The useful answers are always the more forgiving ones

I spend almost eight hours every week commuting to and from work on the bus. (Not ideal, I know).

Most of the time I actually don’t mind the opportunity to read, nap, or just think. And most days, I’m free to do exactly that. But public transportation necessitates a certain amount of exposure to a wide range of occasionally amusing, often distracting behavior from fellow passengers.

There’s the woman on her phone two rows over, busy informing the entire bus about her weekend plans. The man who insists his dog have a seat to itself when it’s standing room only. The guy next to you whose briefcase is poking you in the side the entire trip.

I could go on, but the point is there’s no shortage of opportunity to be annoyed about something if you wanted to be.

In the past I would just try to take these moments in stride, with varying degrees of success. And then this quote happened:

“The useful answers, the answers that help us solve problems, are always the more forgiving ones. They’re based on a line of inquiry that assumes there is always a good reason for everything.”

Barbara Sher

It wasn’t a sun-bursts-through-the-clouds moment when I first read it. I remember thinking, “Hm, that’s interesting, I should put that in my Evernote.” So I did, and kept reading. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my head, and the more time that passed, the more profound it seemed.

Maybe the woman on her cell phone is in a long distance relationship and her significant other is coming to visit this weekend for the first time in three months. Maybe the dog doesn’t handle crowds well and is much more at ease on a seat than on the ground. Maybe the guy sitting next to you just bought a new briefcase and can’t get over how nice the leather feels in his hands.

It doesn’t matter how implausible any of these explanations sound. By directing your awareness out instead of in, you change a potential source of irritation into an opportunity to exercise creativity and empathy.

The beauty of this philosophy is that it’s applicable in many other contexts as well:

Practicing user-centered design

I was on an email thread the other day where the product team was discussing findings from a usability study. Participants in the lab were overlooking the placement of a new answer on the results page and there was debate as to whether we should break the answer framework to make it more prominent.

One argument against doing so was a principled desire to avoid “designing for failure.” I agree it’s not possible to solve for every corner case, but a blanket stance like this assumes your users are robots instead of humans.

Some might also contend that a forgiving approach is at odds with having a strong product vision. I disagree. Steve Jobs was unyielding in the pursuit of his vision, but the devices and experiences he created were successful precisely because they were so intuitive to use and crafted with deep attention to the needs—and imperfections—of the people who would be interacting with them.

Change is hard. Creators have a responsibility to push the envelope, but you have to allow for the fact that not everyone is going to get it on day one. Roll out gradually and give people the option to go back to the old experience if they’re not ready.

Leading and managing teams

Effective managers have a habit of asking “Why?”

When you invite their feedback on an idea or problem, they first want to understand the assumptions you’re making and the motivations of the parties involved. They usually have an instinct about the right course of action, but rather than jumping to conclusions, they learn how you’ve approached the issue before offering advice.

As a leader, it’s tempting to equate an approach where you assume there’s a good reason for everything with weakness and being a pushover. But in the same way you can show respect even if you don’t agree with someone’s perspective, there’s a difference between acknowledging where a person is coming from and endorsing their point of view.

Whether it’s in the workplace, classroom, home, or even just on the bus, I’ve never regretted taking time to consider the more forgiving explanations behind people’s behavior.

3 thoughts on “The useful answers are always the more forgiving ones”

  1. This reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech This is Water. Intelligence is focusing your attention on the right things and developing compassion and empath what others–shared humanity. So glad I stumbled upon this blog 🙂

  2. I enjoyed this one and it definitely gave me stuff to think about! Have you heard of the curse of knowledge? The idea that stuck with me the most was that one of the hardest things for us to imagine is what it’s like to not know what we know. I think this is typically used to refer to stored knowledge, but I like to apply it more broadly as a tool for sympathy. This is especially relevant now since our country is so politically divided and people are looking for ways to navigate the dinner conversations that make you want to disown your family. I think people often imagine that others have the same mental foundations, yet are forming different conclusions about the world. When in reality, the entire framework for how that person thinks, along with all of their assumptions, may be completely foreign to you but make total logical sense in their world. I think it’s important to remember that when judging someone else’s actions. Although it might not change how right or wrong they are, it can help temper your own reactions if you realize that you don’t have all the information and consider the more forgiving explanations. 🙂

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