I went to a Lunch n' Learn at the office today on "Emotional Intelligence" - the first in a Women's Leadership series at Red Hat - and thought there were some things worth passing to the Fedora community since we've been having our fair share of debates lately. I'm actually not that emotionally intelligent myself yet, but by giving me the ability to analyze conversations (my own and other people's) after the fact, I think my participation in open source communities has helped me start developing it quite a bit over the years by giving me good role models to learn from, and allowing me  access to their thinking-out-loud without asking me for my credentials first.

So, Fedora. Shaking up perceptions, differing perspectives, and so forth are fantastic and oftentimes that energy drives ideas forward, but it's also easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment when the conversation is about something we deeply care about, and nobody likes their passion threatened.

There were a few classic points made in the presentation, such as:

  • Relationships are like bank accounts. You want to make more deposits than withdrawals.
  • Get better at identifying and articulating your emotions - instead of just going "I'm angry!" right away, check to see if there's an emotion that might more accurately describe what you're feeling. For instance, you might not be angry - you might be feeling abandoned, tired, impatient, confused, ignored, and so forth.
  • Check perceptions. Instead of assuming someone else feels a certain way, ask them if your gauge is correct: "It sounds to me like you're feeling ____. Am I off?"
  • When you have an emotional outburst, you force others to deal with your behavior rather than the actual issue at hand.

I took a few things away from this. Expanding on that last bullet point, it's helpful to delimit (that's delimit, not limit) your emotions, especially over text when it's hard to tell through body language, tone of voice, etc. when someone's calm or agitated. If you're in a discussion and need to vent an emotion before you can continue productively addressing the problem, vent it - but tell people that first! "Hey, I want to tackle $problem, but I'm a little frustrated right now, could I vent here for 5 minutes, and then I'll stop and we can move on?" And after you're done venting, make it clear you're done. "Thanks - just having people listen helped a lot. I'm ready to move on now. So, about $problem..."

If you can't do that directly with the person you're talking to (you're too frustrated, they're too frustrated, you don't feel like you know them well enough, etc), I've also successfully vented in backchannel to sympathetic friends during tough conversations, where we've agreed ahead of time that they'll be my buffer for random frustration so that I don't let that out in-meeting.

Mel: Hey, I've got a meeting coming up in #fedora-foobar about the latest foobar issue, and I think it's going to be a tough one. Would you mind if I vented to you in backchannel during it, in case I need to do that?
Friend: Sure, I'll lurk in the channel and you can ping me (on IRC PM, phone, in-person) if you want.

During the meeting, in backchannel, while a perfectly civil conversation takes place in #fedora-foobar:
Friend: It's okay, it's okay.
(conversation proceeds)

Friend: Now that was uncalled for on their side. You can totally point that out.
Mel: Mrrghf. No, I'll let it go this time, it's okay. Breathing.
Friend: All right, but if they do it again, I'm going to point it out myself.
(conversation proceeds)

Friend: Breathe, they're impatient from waiting for three months for a reply, but the delay wasn't your fault, just let them vent.
Mel: Can I say something like "I realize we allowed Baz before, but that was made very clear to be a one-time experimental exception to see if it worked out, and clearly it did not work out according to the terms we agreed on beforehand"?
Friend: Yeah, you can say that, it's reasonable! Here, I found the link to the original mailing list post...
Friend: Perfect. That was a great response - very diplomatic.
Mel: Thank you.
Friend: They seem to be responding well to it.
(conversation proceeds)

Friend: Want me to jump in briefly and point out that they've brought up this point before?
Mel: Yes please.
(and so forth.)

I've also played the reverse role for others quite frequently. Also, if I'm in a channel and I see someone handling a difficult discussion with great tact, I'll sometimes send them a "good job - I know this is a tough convo but you're handling it very well" PM in the background, because sometimes it just feels good to have that internal struggle acknowledged. I wish more people would notice and applaud diplomacy and tact in Fedora conversations - we have tons of excellent conversations about difficult topics, yet often it's only on the rare occasions when we lack that diplomacy that it's called out.

A lot of people say that handling emotions is harder online. I disagree - I think it's different. Yes, you lose a lot of the subtleties of body language, yes, it's often faster and more fluent on the phone or an in-person conversation... but there are advantages the internet gives you that many folks don't take advantage of - like the ability to have a backchannel like the one above. I actually find it easier to deal with emotional outbursts and difficult negotiations online sometimes, because I can have that real-time running commentary with teammates who can help me step back and analyze, disengage, etc. from the situation when I need to - especially when I might not be aware of it myself. (And as a more neutral voice, when they step in to point out something, it helps defuse/mediate things more.)

Finally, I suspect that if I actually let those little helpful voices in my IRC client also chime in silently, in the back of my mind, when I'm in a tough in-person situation, I might get better at that too.