I’ve now been pairing with several people a week for the last few weeks. Even over that short period of time, I’ve seen a pattern emerge:
If you watch someone else (of any skill level) and pay attention, you will learn.
When I’m watching others, I tend to be thinking of what I’d do in their situation, but sometimes just observing very simple things a user does – a VIM action, a command line script, an obscure API call, a rare tool – these are the details that change you in the small over time. This same principle is why counselors tell you to actively listen to your spouse – hear what they’re saying instead of just thinking of what you’re about to say. Sometimes you pick up on things they might not be able to vocalize themselves. Sometimes you pick up on emotions you would be too busy to notice otherwise. Actively listening in any relationship involves shutting up and noticing the details–it just happens to be true when you’re pair programming as well.
So the next time you’re pairing, watch closely, ask real questions, and learn.