Don’t fear the Pit.
Have you ever been in the Despondent Pit of Techno-Despair? You know what I’m talking about, if you’ve been there. You’ve been trying to get some type of technology to work, usually in front of other people. It probably worked yesterday, or even earlier today, when you tested it by yourself, but the controls are now mysteriously incomprehensible and you’d swear they look different than they did an hour ago. Possibly a lot of people are waiting to do some very important work supported by the technology you’re fooling with. Time stretches and warps in a weird way, and it feels like everyone else is holding their breath and staring at you with saucer-sized eyes. You can almost see them thinking, “What the heck is this person’s problem, and how long is it going to be my problem too?” You start to feel like you are at the bottom of a giant black hole in the earth and the sunlight is so far away you will never see it again. You kind of wish it would just collapse on you and everyone would go away and let you die of embarrassment in peace.
Yeah. Welcome to the Pit.
I spend a lot of time in the Pit, which sometimes surprises people because I generally seem to have a handle on technology. (Generally.) But think about it: I spend a lot more time walking along the edge of the Pit than most people. It stands to reason that I’ll fall in fairly often.
So why would I keep wandering around on the edge of this scary, deep, dark Pit if I know how awful it is when you fall in?
Simple: I also know the way out.
I’ve built a ladder that I use to get out of the Pit. Rung by rung, I can climb my way back to the sunshine. Knowing this makes me unafraid to fall in, and even lets me laugh about it and take it in stride. Well, sometimes.
Here, I’ll show you my ladder. This is the ladder I’ve built for when I’m working with a group, and I’m the one having the issue.
- Starting on the bottom rungs, I breathe and I stay calm. I can’t do anything if I’m not calm, so that’s the first thing to get under control.
- Moving up a rung, I say oops! That is, I acknowledge there’s a problem and I briefly say what it is. This usually gives me the space to realize what’s likely going on and then I can…
- Move up to the next rung, where I Try One Thing. Just one. The most likely one. If it works, yay! I’m out! If not, I reach up to the next rung…
- Which is to switch to my backup plan. (Always have a backup plan.)
- Once I’m in a stable place with the backup plan in effect, I briefly say what went wrong that made me put the backup plan into action. I describe it neutrally, remembering that the computer is really not out to get me, nor am I an idiot. I just fell in the Pit, is all. At this point, I reach the top rung…
- And I can move on — I’m out!
My ladders, now your ladders.
I also know how to climb down on purpose and bring other people out with me. It’s almost worse than falling in yourself: You’re walking along with someone on the edge of the Pit, and suddenly they fall in and start panicking. They’re terrified you’re going to wander off and leave them down there (which is what happens when they encounter really bad tech support).
The temptation to cut the poor person loose can be very strong. Don’t be that guy. Climb down there and show them the way out, now that you’ve learned it.
Here’s the ladder I use when I’m helping someone else out of the Pit:
- The bottom rung is about getting them calm. Say, “It’s okay, let’s take a moment to figure this out.” Next rung…
- Get them to stop making it worse. Say, “Okay. Don’t click anything until we figure out what’s going on.” (If they keep clicking, they keep changing the state of the problem, and you’ll never work it out.)
- From there, climb up to the next rung and ask them to describe what they see on the screen, again without clicking anything. Literally ask, “What are you seeing right now on the screen?” This is assuming you’re working remotely and can’t see them, of course. If you’re right there with them, you can skip this rung.
- If what they describe gives you the answer, go ahead and say it. If that works, yay! You’re both out. If not, there’s more ladder.
- If you can accomplish the same task another way, switch to that backup plan. (You do have a backup plan, right? You always have a backup plan.) If not, and you can easily view their screen (have them share it in a Skype call, for instance), try that.
- Once you’re stable, either in the backup plan or because you can see their screen and talk them up another rung, explain what happened in a neutral way. Nobody is an idiot. The computer isn’t out to get anybody. It’s easy to fall in the Pit. No worries. Then, grab that top rung…
- And move on! You’re both out.
Take my ladders with you next time you’re heading for the edge of the Pit. It really helps to have a way out!