Thursday, August 11, 2011

How Engineers Solve Conversations

There's always that span of time during a night at the bar when you find yourself thinking about things in a much deeper way than you probably should. Last Saturday, during those precious moments of clarity, I found myself talking to a man in sales. As we sat there at the bar and traded stories, my mind started to wander. Follow along.

Successful salespeople always think about how to read people and successful engineers always think about solving problems. As an engineer (with a few drinks in him), I came to the realization that to me, conversations can be thought of as just another problem to solve.

Every conversation has variables: the other people, the topics, body language, social rules, and the number of drinks consumed. These are things that can change at any time during the conversation.  Every conversation has a set of constants: you, the location, news, weather, something funny across the bar or on TV.  A constant in this case can be thought of as a set of facts known or agreed upon by everyone in the conversation. The goal is to solve for the other person or people in the conversation.

When I start to solve a conversation, I normally start with a constant. "Can you believe what happened with at shooting in the Loop today?" Unless I'm talking to the person doing the shooting, I generally know how the others will react. Like most problems, verifying your constants is always a good place to start.  In the process, you will start to see patterns emerge.

When I talk about shooting, I start to hear stories about the family member who was on the police force. Now I have more constants to work with. A problem can't be solved unless you add a little bit of past experience with other problems into the mix, so I share a similar story.  As the conversation continues, I find myself getting closer and closer to turning variables into values you can predict with reasonable certainty.

Normal people solve hundreds of these problems everyday without even thinking about it while engineers fail to solve many of these problems every single day. 

That night, as you can probably already tell, I failed miserably at solving pretty much anything.