The art of listening to juniors
I am lucky that I regularly have the chance to mentor juniors through their career debut. I truly enjoy helping people develop their passion, especially when it’s a shared one. I take this role seriously and see it as a challenge. If someone I am helping fails at something I taught them, I take it personally and tend to believe the responsibility is mine. But I also know that you need to do the same thing over and over to learn. This mentality often led me to rethink the way I approach and teach things and I learned a lot along the way.
When teaching, there is the obvious and the less obvious. Obviously, you must spend more time explaining the concepts around a problem. You also need to make sure the vocabulary is well understood. But then there are things that might seem unnatural, things you need to keep in mind. One of those things is to understand how someone’s brain is wired.
For example, when an intern tells you that they are unable to do something the natural reaction is to walk them through the solution. Most of the times, the reason for their mistake is clear right from the very first few words. In this situation, it is tempting to just say “ok, I know what you did wrong, let me show you”. Bad news: by doing so you’re missing on the opportunity to build confidence and to get in their shoes. When a junior says they’re failing at something, they will often go into a lengthy explanation of all the things they tried. Unless you didn’t find the problem already, chances are this is going to be irrelevant to the solution.
The thing is that juniors often implement the correct solution but it doesn’t work. And then they do the same thing with you along their side and tada, it works! While they’re convinced they had done the exact same thing, their previous solution obviously had a tiny difference. That’s perfectly fine, it’s part of the learning.
So a junior’s lengthy explanation is unlikely to teach you anything about the problem at hand. But it tells you something way more important: how they’re wired. Listen closely to the words, pictures they use and how they link things together. Get a feeling of what they know and what they don’t. Do not interrupt them, your turn comes when they’re done talking. This approach has mainly three benefits.
The first is that it teaches you their language. You will be able to use their words and pictures when it comes to solving the problem. By speaking the same language, you’re offering an explanation that will look familiar to their brain — thus easier to understand and remember.
The second is that it gives you a clearer vision of what they know and what they don’t. When teaching something, it’s important to go through the fundamentals again and again until it lasts. But then there’s everything that’s beyond what they already know. You should not bring too many new concepts at the same time. Also, there’s no point in explaining them something that’s way too far from what they already know. A decent ratio would be to spend 80% on fundamentals and 20% on things that are one step further than what they already know. That’s why it is so important to understand where the next step is.
Finally, it builds confidence. By listening to a junior, you’re making them matter. By speaking their language, you’re humbly trying to be like them. They won’t be afraid of talking to you because they know you’re not going to use jargon. By limiting the new concepts you’re according them time to learn and breath.