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I am a tech lead in a software development team (but our team is not very hierarchical - I just help with organisational tasks more than other team members do). I recently had a technical discussion with a colleague that I found overwhelming. They had done some investigation, and I wanted to get the gist of it before it was brought to the rest of the team. I had a very hard time understanding them. I am reasonably familiar with the code they were looking at, but it felt as if they were giving huge amounts of information without very much structure, and it was difficult for me to follow their reasoning. We went back and forth for a long time, but eventually I had to end the conversation because I could no longer follow a train of thought. In the end I had to more or less reproduce their investigation myself before the high level picture became clear.

This experience was very disturbing to me - I hate not being able to understand what someone is getting at, and I felt very frustrated with the conversation. Worst of all, I didn't feel able to articulate the problem until long after the discussion was over, because I didn't feel able to say "I have discussed the issue with X, but I still have no idea what the high level picture is". So I couldn't really ask for help from my manager, and I feel stupid for being unable to salvage something useful from the discussion. If it were as simple as the colleague being unclear, then I feel like I would have been able to stop them at the beginning and say exactly what was unclear in my own words. But in this case I couldn't tell what they were saying was irrelevant until I already understood the problem completely.

I am not sure how to handle this kind of discussion. I want to speak to my manager about it, but I don't know what to tell him. I could just say this colleague is a bad communicator and leave it at that, but I still have to work with them. And what if it's not their communication, and I'm just bad at understanding their investigation? I doubt it, because I don't usually struggle with technical discussions, but it is rare for me to so completely freeze like this, and it makes me doubt myself. After over 2 hours I just couldn't continue, and I lost my train of thought completely. But I felt guilty for wasting the time, and unable to explain it to my manager and move onto something else.

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    First time speaking or understanding this person's work? First time you are baffled like this at any code you have studied from any other coworker?
    – DarkCygnus
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 22:00

5 Answers 5

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I've experienced this throughout my time - and I agree, it's frustrating.

The degree to which I'm impacted really does vary with my mood though - if I'm tired and had a busy day, it's much easier to experience this.

So the first point is to ask yourself whether or not any external factors were impacting your ability to understand. You'd be surprised at how much info you miss in a meeting at 4 pm on a Friday, vs 10 am on a Tuesday. We are Humans, factor in the Humanity.

Structure

Some people are very fluid communicators, they talk on like a river, flowing from one thing to the next, meandering around a point etc. Sometimes I can follow, sometimes I can't. When I can't - what I find helps me is to put in place very clear structure. When they start to go off on a Tangent something like:

"Hey - just so I'm clear - are you talking about new aspect or is this related to current aspect - or does this fit in between?"

It can feel confrontational at first - especially if you are stopping someone mid-flow - but remember, if you let them ramble and you are none-the-wiser, you've wasted both of your time(s) - it's better to politely interrupt when you feel yourself deviating from understanding to get back on the same page.

Follow through with them

For some things, I can't get my head around it, unless I actually do the thing. Classic Kinesthetic learning. So I'll ask them to allow me to drive whilst they take me through something, this process helps me retain the info better, but also helps me understand it, since I'm doing it.

Repeat back to them

When you think you have a concept, relay it back to them in your own words. Your words = your thoughts and understanding, other peoples words merely parroted = other peoples thoughts and understanding.

These two things are not the same - I might describe something one way, but someone else might describe it differently, so long as we both understand it and can understand each other - then we are fine.

This is also a good way to use the Structure I talked about earlier - as a way to pause between concepts and make sure you understood a concept fully.

Take Notes or otherwise record it

If it's a Teams Meeting - don't be afraid to record it. I've had meetings where I've recorded the meeting to refer back to, because I knew I was tired and wasn't sure I'd absorb everything. No harm in asking. If it's a verbal meeting - take notes.

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  • The pen is mightier than the... well, you know what I mean. Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 0:19
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I've been in your shoes. And in your colleague's shoes! I'll take a guess at what's going on from your colleague's perspective. I've learned that when I understand something, I tend to forget how much background knowledge and experience was required for me to become the "expert". As I start to explain something, I realise there's something else I need to explain, and so on. If I'm not careful, I can overwhelm the other person with too much information at once.

Also, when I'm the expert, it's difficult to know what level to explain things at to someone else. Often I'm worried they will think that I'm "talking down" to them, so I don't explain things that I should explain.

I have improved considerably over the years. Here are some things that have helped me.

  • As I gained experience, I realised that we're all experts in some areas, and "idiots" in other areas. And even in areas where we're experts, we all have moments of sheer stupidity. So don't be afraid to interrupt and say "sorry, but I'm not grasping this. Can you explain it to me like I'm two years old?"

  • For your next discussion, come prepared with some questions. You can use the questions to steer the discussion. But even if you don't ask them directly, the questions will help you focus because you'll be looking for the information.

  • You can ask your colleague to slow down, but they probably won't know how slow you want to go. So it might be better to interrupt periodically and say something like "Hold on, let me make sure I've understood you correctly" and then repeat the last point in your own words, and at the level of detail that you think you're ready for. This helps your colleague adjust their communication to your needs.

After over 2 hours I just couldn't continue, and I lost my train of thought completely.

Well, of course! Concentrating on something technical that's not (yet) in your area of expertise is very difficult. There's a reason that college classes are usually an hour. Schedule a technical discussion for no longer than an hour. If you run out of time, stop and schedule another meeting to pick up where you left off. Some discussions require a few meetings, that's OK.

Finally, try to remember all of this when you're the expert trying to explain something to some other poor soul!

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  • No meeting should ever run more than about an hour without a break. Also, when someone is too terse (reducing database Normalization to 4 sentences - guilty!) or too descriptive (going back through the whole history of data storage to explain databases) then it doesn't work. Finally, most people cannot use new info the first time they hear it. It just doesn't happen. Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 0:16
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First I must say, don't treat yourself like that. Having a hard time understanding someone doesn't make you "stupid" (as per your words) we've all struggled at least one understanding something.

I sense from your wording and post that you are indeed disturbed by this event. This suggests that it may be the first time ever you have had trouble understanding something as this situation. I also get the sense that this was your first time interacting or listening to this person's explanation of the code.

Taking these things into consideration, my partial conclusion would be that this person (your coworker) has a hard time explaining things, or has poor communication skills that hinder their ability to express themselves clearly...

... the fact that you were able to "solve the mystery" and understand the big picture after a while and thinking it through gives more weight to my last claim about your coworker.


Now, regarding the actionable goals.

I am not sure how to handle this kind of discussion. I want to speak to my manager about it, but I don't know what to tell him. I could just say this colleague is a bad communicator and leave it at that, but I still have to work with them

I would not escalate this to your manager yet. It's not your job to manage this coworker. Chances are your manager already knows about your coworker and their (lack of?) communication skills.

I would give your coworker the benefit of doubt, and see how they perform next time they have to explain something to you. If they are unclear and vague again, then perhaps politely and carefully ask for clarification on what's unclear to you, or even try to say it on your own words.

If things are completely chaotic again, then perhaps further action or escalation is needed, but too soon to know for now.

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There's a few things you can do to manage the problem.

Firstly, it is quite common for software developers to encounter difficult situations that defy their communication skills. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that an explanation has made no sense.

Secondly, requiring that complicated explanations be in writing, or at least put in skeleton form before developing the explanation verbally and taking questions, is not only more helpful in general, but it can also act as a coalmine canary about the size of the explanation required and whether the writer is coping with it.

Thirdly, sometimes you simply have to react dynamically to the situation. Sometimes additional meetings have to be held based on what you find (or don't find) in earlier meetings. Sometimes you have to investigate yourself.

Fourth, meetings should almost always be limited to about 60 minutes. Allowing things to proceed unproductively for 2 hours, until you yourself switched off, is poor control.

If time is running out of control with no end in sight, then at least call a tea break for refreshment, but if it is obvious that the meeting has gone completely off the rails already, then call an end and return on another occasion when you and the meeting presenter feel that you have regained a grasp on the subject.

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Rather than having this frustrating discussion, it might be less frustrating to have the team member commit their understanding to the situation to either a document or a Powerpoint presentation. This forces a bit more organization than you seemed to be receiving from a direct discussion. It might look like this:

  • High level summary of what's being discussed. One paragraph
  • What does this affect?
  • What's the expected behavior?
  • What are the three best approaches to fixing things, and how long will they take?
  • Suggested next steps.

Compartmentalizing these areas will help greatly.

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