Todd Simkin on conversation techniques that seem dull but actually help others think and reason
Simkin talked about a seemingly trivial conversation technique that help others think clearer (and realize things by themselves):
Simkin: [There is] something that I learned while I was in college from a book called Teacher Effectiveness Training. When I read it in the book, and we talked about it in class, I said, “This is the dumbest piece of advice anybody’s ever put down on paper.” And it was around reflective listening. The idea was that instead of trying to step in and do problem solving, instead of trying to reframe, instead of trying to provide context or dig deeper, all you do is tell the person what you heard them say.
So that night, a friend of mine was over at my apartment for dinner. And she was talking about a problem that she was having with a roommate. And I was like, just for kicks, I’m going to give this a shot. And she’s, you know, salting the chicken or whatever it was, and she’s like “my roommate never puts her dishes away, and it bugs the hell out of me.” I reply, “So it sounds like you’re really bothered when she doesn’t put away your dishes.” She says, “Yeah, and it’s not just that, it’s also that she doesn’t appreciate it. When I do clean up.” Then I said, “So, it sounds like part of the problem here is that you’re not feeling appreciated.”
[I thought that] she was gonna think I’m the dumbest guy that she’s ever known, right? All I’m doing is, is repeating what she’s saying. And I was like, “Well, this certainly feels dumb, and I guess at some point, I got to call myself out on and point out that I’m just doing this stupid thing from the stupid book.” And then she turned to me and said, “Todd, this is the most beneficial conversation I’ve had about my relationship with my roommate ever. I feel like I’m coming away with this understanding myself better and her.”
Her experience was totally different from mine! She felt heard, she felt seen. And she felt like she now had the power to make a better decision about her relationship going forward.
And I thought, “Okay, well, maybe this guy’s not so stupid. Maybe this book isn’t so stupid. And maybe these methods work in places that I wouldn’t have thought they would work.” And it’s not always the solution. But it’s a much better solution than I would have thought it would be. And it’s something that I find myself doing with my kids all the time, and it no longer feels forced to me. It no longer feels fake.
To me, it’s very clear that what I’m doing is allowing the space for them to finish their own thought. That’s one of the things that I do with my kids that I think has been really beneficial.
This surely sounds like the proverbial rubber duck of software engineers. The mere act of verbalizing something helps us seeing our own problems from a different, and potentially insightful, perspective.
Here’s another conversation technique — “How do you feel about that?” — that Simkin employs with his kids:
Simkin: Another one that’s sort of related to that was pointed out to me yesterday by my 16 year old’s friend, who was over in the house. Her friend had said something that was happening with her parents, who were away. And she was talking about an argument that she had with her parents, and something that her father said to her.
My daughter said, “Well, how do you feel about that?” And her friend’s said, “That is the most Simkin thing that I could hear you say at that point? Instead of asking what I want to do next, you start with, ‘How do I feel about it?’” — which is something that the friend and my daughter have heard from me and Shelly, my wife, over and over again.
Again, it’s really hard for us to jump in and start providing advice, if we don’t even know where the child is coming from. If we start saying, “Well, it sounds like that other kid was being a jerk?”, and then your kid is like “No, that’s not what I was saying at all. How do you not get me? How do you not understand what this is just starting with?”
So we say “How do you feel about that?” It feels like the Freudian psychologist sitting back, you know, while you’re lying on the couch mumbling something, but turns out to be really helpful.
This other technique is a bit more inquisitive, but still with very soft touch. It’s “I want to support you. But in order to do that I need to understand it better. Tell me more.”
Simkin: I hope to put the same care today that my father had then [when they talked about Todd Simkin’s important decisions], which is that he never erupted. His reaction was never emotional. It was purely inquisitive. It was like, you know, “Help me understand better.” And the question he helped me understand better is exactly the way I approach decisions that my children are making [today]. “Look, you know that I love and support you with whatever it is that you’re doing. But I can either provide context or, at the very least, more support, if I understand better where you’re coming from.”
One of the other teachers of the class at Susquehanna has such a lovely touch, he just says, “Tell me more.” And tell me more doesn’t have any value laid in it, it doesn’t have any judgment in it. It’s just saying, go ahead and add more words to what you’ve already shared. “You want to take this action against this type of order flow? Why? Tell me more.”
And effectively what my father was saying is the same as what as what Mike, my co-teacher says, when he’s talking to our students, which is just, “I cannot reach a conclusion about what you’re saying, until I understand it better. So help me understand it better. Tell me more.”
Parrish: I think that’s really effective. And one of the things that I like about your father’s approach is that it started with “I want to support you. But in order to do that I need to understand it better.” So it comes from this sort of unconditional love and no judgment about your decision. But, not being able to connect the dots for yourself. Which, I assume, would help you communicate constructively about your decisions, and communicate how you’re thinking about things. Which is the beginning of sort of getting better at them.
Simkin: I think that’s exactly right. And the other thing that it does is that it establishes very early that we’re on the same side. That we have, if not all of the same goals, we have alignment with our values and our goals. “I want to support you” says, “All I’m looking for is an excuse to make sure that you and I are facing the same direction, facing the world together. Help me get there. Bring me into alignment with you by telling me more.”
If communication is paramount for a trader at Susquehanna, then this last technique is certainly very handy. For more context, see Todd Simkin on overcoming cognitive biases by communicating well with the right kind of group.