Listening without Preconceptions

Apropos of nothing, here’s a little satirical piece that went into my 2003 book Extreme Programming Refactored:

Picture the scene: a gas-lit alley in 1888, with typical London smog swirling ominously around the pedestrians’ chattering knees.

A horse-drawn carriage bearing the royal insignia clatters past, the horses’ iron-clad hooves creating sparks against the smooth pebbly cobbles.

A harassed-looking police constable makes his way on foot to the scene of a nearby murder. He is met by a wild-eyed “painted lady” who demands to know who might have attacked her colleague and whether the attacker is going to strike again anytime soon.

“I need to ask you some questions,” the constable says to the woman, who has begun to calm down a little. “First of all, do you have any idea who might have done this?”

The woman pauses and then launches into an emotional tirade about how that should be the constable’s job, surely, to find out and tell her who did this. Her harsh, uneducated East-End accent ricochets off a nearby railing, the sparks threatening to ignite the smog.

“That’s hardly the way it works,” the tired-sounding constable explains, and adds (in a completely inappropriate explanation given the situation), “You should think of me as a gestalt being, whose existence is driven only by the information given to me by street creatures such as yourself. I am a being that consists purely of information. I have no state or matter of my own. Now, I can solve this crime given the correct information, but all I do is collate whatever details are given to me - including, one hopes, the name of the killer. I can impose my own rules and behaviors upon the information, deriving and analyzing it using my own training and in the context of other information that other people have given to me. But I cannot add my own information to the mix, for I have none - and if I do have any, then it is my job to ignore it to the best of my abilities, such that I do not carry any misleading preconceptions about this crime or the situation herein, that may lead me erroneously to the wrong decision. Does that make sense to you now, my poor, sweet little street creature?”

The woman nods sagely and says, “I understand now, Constable. It is your job to ask questions, and to listen, and to reach a conclusion based upon the information given to you in the context of your investigation, and nothing else.”

“That’s right,” the constable replies, sounding surprised.

About the Author

Matt Stephens is a senior architect, programmer and project leader based in Central London. He co-wrote Agile Development with ICONIX Process, Extreme Programming Refactored, and Use Case Driven Object Modeling with UML - Theory and Practice.