The trope that engineers lack emotional intelligence is grounded in this truth: when someone expresses a need, the objective function that they really want you to maximize is almost never the one that they are telling you to maximize.

And here’s the kicker - it’s almost impossible to get people to tell you the true function they want you to maximize. Outside the context of an exceptionally functional and trustful relationship, doing so is usually more emotional honesty and vulnerability than most people, myself included, are willing to bear.

This has been a difficult idea to wrap my head around for the last twenty-odd years. When solving problems in STEM disciplines, the objective is usually stated explicitly:

Here is your objective function: take its derivative with respect to something and set it to zero.

While the mechanics may be hard, there is no question about what you are trying to achieve.

A requirement of my current Master’s program is a course on communication - the kind of squishy content that usually makes eyes roll. Here’s a sample exercise: take the following statement from somebody expressing an unmet need, and evaluate the response for defensiveness.

Alice: “I’m always the one cleaning up the dishes. I wish you’d be less careless around the house.”

Bob: “What do you mean? I don’t think you’re being entirely reasonable. You know I’m busy and I don’t have time to always clean up. Also, I do the laundry more often than you.”

Our instructor would call this a defensive response. Stated otherwise, this is an outright rejection of the other party’s proposed objective function, in favour of your own. When I do this, I probably don’t even realize that I’m allowing another objective function to override. Typical suspects for this override are:

  • My desire to believe that I am a good person
  • My desire to perceive myself as intelligent/competent/worthy
  • To get recognition for my own unappreciated efforts, etc.

This is the most unproductive form of civil communication. One layer of hell underneath, we have passive-aggression or outright toxic hostility - but we won’t get into that.

Slightly more enlightened — focus on the stated objective function (maximize clean dishes):

Alice: I’m always the one cleaning up the dishes. I wish you’d be less careless around the house.

Bob: I’m sorry, you’re right. I’ll try to be better about the dishes in future.

Most people stop here and think it’s enough, myself included. Acknowledge the proposed objective function, and present a promise and intention to maximize it. Seems pretty good…right?

…well, sort of. For most problems of an engineering nature, this is indeed the most productive thing to do. If a bulb is burned out, you change the bulb. If a regular expression captures the wrong patterns, you revise the regular expression. There’s really nothing deeper to it.

The following absurd example should demonstrate why this fails for human needs:

Bob: I don’t feel like there’s enough intimacy between us.

Alice: Ok, I acknowledge that, and I agree that it’s my responsibility to help fix it. Let’s agree on measures of intimacy. How about hugs, kisses, and a good roll in the hay? We can put up a dashboard of the actions that have occurred each week, assign weights to each, and hold each other accountable to reaching our weekly intimacy goal.


What would ideally happen (and this almost never happens):

Bob: I don’t feel like there’s enough intimacy between us.

Alice: That sucks - I love you and I don’t intend for you to feel that way. Can you tell me why?

Bob: Sure. You’ve been really busy with your new job - you leave really early in the morning, you come back late at night, and even when you’re at home, you’re on your phone and you don’t really seem to be paying attention. It makes me feel like my thoughts and the work that I’m doing matters less to you than your work, which really hurts. In fact it hurts because I’m not 100% sure myself that what I’m currently pursuing is worthwhile, and I value your opinions, whether explicitly or implicitly stated. I’m worried that I’m a worthless piece of garbage who is deluding myself with my silly little projects while you go off into the world doing things that actually matter to people. I’m not confident that I’m doing something worthwhile with my life.

Alice: Oh my gosh, how can you think that? (proceeds to explain to Bob why she thinks he is amazing)

But it’s difficult to be emotionally honest enough with yourself to reach this Bob-like level of awareness. Sometimes you can’t even tell yourself what your underoptimized objective function is, let alone someone you love and trust. And as for saying this to someone who you don’t trust or even like…well, it’s easy to see why that’s impossible, even if they go to the (unlikely) effort of asking.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that if you don’t ask about someone’s feelings in a genuine manner, in the context of a trustful relationship, you’re likely to piss them off more than if you had just focused on the literal thing they asked for. Not only are we humans terrible at recognizing our own emotional needs, we’re also resentful of any suggestion that we might need our emotions taken care of, as opposed to some empirical objective. It makes us feel weak and selfish.

Alice: I’m always the one cleaning up the dishes. I wish you’d be less careless around the house.

Bob: It seems you are upset that I don’t help more often around the house. Is that it?

Alice: …yes, that’s literally what I just said.

Bob: Can you tell me why it bothers you?

Alice: What do you mean, why does it bother me? Don’t give me that psychology bullshit from communications class, this isn’t a therapy session about my feelings. It’s about the damn dishes, ok? It’s really not that deep. Don’t try to pretend like I’m the problem here. Just do the friggin’ dishes.

Obviously, Alice is lying to herself. We want people to maximize our true objective functions, but we don’t want to have to tell them what they are, and we also don’t want to know that they are doing it.

It’s a tall order to ask of someone. How do you get better at doing something when you aren’t allowed to ask what it is, and can’t even say that you’re doing it?

Fortunately there are two things to guide us: wisdom and feedback. Wisdom is the knowledge given to us in texts like The Dhammapada, or Getting to Yes, or How to Win Friends And Influence People. These books point us to the existence of these hidden emotional objective functions, in ourselves and in others, that we can begin to perceive if we pay mindful attention. Feedback is built into us in the form of emotions themselves: it naturally feels good to resolve a conflict, or get deeper, more meaningful engagement from somebody. The human ancestors who took care of the emotional needs of others were liked, kept around, and invited to share in the kill. They survived.

The usual engineering toolkit for problem solving is ill-suited to dealing with human emotion and conflict, but that doesn’t mean we are defenseless against this class of problems. Years of evolution and literature can tilt the odds in our favour to make the learning cycle a little shorter and a little more efficient. We just have to pay attention to the tidbits of information that they offer up.