Linux, musical road-dogging, and daily life by Paul W. Frields
A spoonful of sugar.

A spoonful of sugar.


Thanks for your thoughtful posting about being helpful in the Fedora support channels. I think among the keys to understanding what someone seeking help needs — let’s just call this person “Nathan” to make this blog post easier to read — are:

  1. Good listening skills
  2. Good empathizing skills

Essentially, a good helper need to be able firstly to turn off any immediate reactions or conclusions to which they might jump about Nathan’s situation. Not concentrating on assumptions about Nathan’s problem or skill set allows the helper to concentrate more on the actual facts needed, and elicit them from the person seeking help. Once the helper has a good idea of what Nathan’s problem really is, and what skills to solve it Nathan might lack, it’s easier to decide what level of help is required — or spoon feeding if you prefer.

Then the helper needs to empathize with Nathan to some degree — put himself in Nathan’s shoes, and allow that understanding to guide how he deals with Nathan’s needs. Often people forget this step and as a result the communication can turn a bit sour. But by making the effort to step outside ourselves to determine how Nathan might view our advice, we can increase the effectiveness of our help by orders of magnitude.

Help in any support venue affects not only Nathan, but the helper too — and in addition, even people who are just watching that help happen in the support venue are affected too! The better each individual interaction is, the better the overall environment for everyone, including newbies, experienced users, helpers, and lurkers. And of course, a more positive environment means more fertile ground for encouraging contribution to free software.

Every helper needs to understand his own level of comfort with listening and empathy, and let that guide his interactions with Nathan. That’s what I like so much about Kevin’s blog post. It shows a level of personal insight to determine Kevin’s comfort level and honest evaluation of where he thinks he can be effective as a helper.

All of us who help support people of any kind, regardless of experience level, should have a somewhat regular checkpoint of introspection, where we honestly think about our own effectiveness at listening and empathy. Then we can adjust our dealings with those we support to maximize the constructiveness of our interactions, and thereby have a direct, positive effect on the culture of free software.


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  2. andrew

    I really like your posts generally, but often think that preaching about linux in this fashion is a complete waste. I mean, the entire “community” push is great, I guess, but when I, for example, open a bug that I have confirmed in 4 different situations, on 4 different linux distributions, to be a fedora-specific kernel issue, and it isn’t even considered or read for 3 full months – what’s the point? Seems as though resources would be MUCH better spent elsewhere.

    1. @andrew: Thanks for your thoughts and your kind words about the blog. A link to the particular bug you’re talking about would be helpful; feel free to leave it here if you like. Not every single kernel bug gets attention because there really are far too many of them for the number of people working on fixing them. But even so, I think you and I can agree that we shouldn’t stop listening and trying to help, just because we can’t fix everything. Failing to fix everything also doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to do better, so that point is well taken.

      Your reference to resources being spent, though, seems to imply that Fedora volunteers are supposed to be gathered and pointed in a particular direction (or even able to be so). Unfortunately, that’s not how free software projects work. Free software depends on people getting involved to scratch their own particular itches. In some cases that itch may be fixing kernel bugs, but in others it’s simply helping other users with common tasks, which is the specific case I was dealing with in responding to Kevin’s blog post. Free software projects would quickly wither if, after identifying a gap or a need, they told contributors not to work on that problem. In addition, being able to work on what interests them is key to volunteers’ understanding they are each valued individuals in the project, not interchangeable and undifferentiated.

      And it’s also important to recall that Fedora is a community-driven project, so at the heart of the matter is this: The more people who get involved in actual bug fixing, the more bugs that will get fixed. If you or someone you know is interested in helping, we are always overjoyed in the Fedora Project to provide tools and capabilities needed to help. Again, thanks for writing (and reading!).

  3. jujitsu!

    What a load of manure. Save it for your garden. This sort of malarkey is precisely what’s wrong around here. Instead, kick Nathan’s soft underbelly and listen to him croak! F Nathan!

    1. @jujitsu: Sorry you didn’t agree with what I wrote. It’s hard for me to think of any part of the Fedora Project which isn’t, at some point, concerned with listening to and interacting constructively with people, so maybe being involved in our Project isn’t for you. But I hope you enjoy the distribution anyway!

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