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:
- Good listening skills
- 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.