A few weeks ago I gave a talk about Communication For Geeks at the Minneapolis MinneBar conference. I strongly believe that the majority of software failures are communication failures, and if geeks want to be a part of fun, successful projects, they had damn well better learn how to communicate... because most managers clearly can't.
It was a surprisingly popular talk: I had twice as many attendees as I had handouts...
Anyway, on Friday, I got an interesting call from one of the attendees, Kelly Coleman. He was excited to tell me about a situation where he used one of my tips to better communicate with one of his friends... Kelly took to heart one of the most important lessons geeks need to learn: use empathy before education! I was really happy to hear about it, so I though I'd repeat the lesson here in case others might benefit:
Empathy is not Sympathy!
A lot of people confuse empathy and sympathy... I do it myself a lot. Sympathy is feeling what somebody else feels through you. When you are being sympathetic, you're not really helping much, because you're making the situation about you... In contrast, empathy is feeling what somebody else feels through them. You keep the focus on them, until you're certain they've expressed themselves fully.
To illustrate, the following would be sympathy:
Bob: I just got fired... Joe: Wow, that sucks... but don't worry, you'll be fine! I got fired a few years back, and there's always work available for talented guys like us, right?
Joe genuinely thinks he is being helpful... Joe is not being helpful! Joe isn't listening to Bob at all. Joe is rambling on about his own past, and about his theories of the job market. He's trying to connect with Bob, but he's using sympathy. Sympathy is dangerous, because it leaves Joe open for this:
Bob: What the hell do you know, Joe? That was years ago! You didn't have a house! You didn't have a wife and a kid to support! The job market was completely different back then! You have no clue about my problems! Get the hell away from me! Joe: ...I was only trying to help...
Bob is clearly in a lot of pain. He's afraid of a lot of things, and his good buddy Joe clearly isn't listening. So Bob lashes out, and wisely tells Joe to get the hell away from him. Then Joe gets defensive, and says something even stupider. With luck, they'll be friends again in a few weeks... but you never know.
In contrast, empathy almost always is better... it would look something like this:
Bob: I just got fired... Joe: Wow, that sucks... you must be feeling pretty scared right now, huh?
Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Give Joe a cookie!
See the difference? Joe didn't make it about himself... he kept his focus on Bob. He asked Bob how he was feeling, and after Bob answers, Joe should keep asking. He should let Bob vent about his situation: his wife, his kid, his house, the job market, whatever. Even if Joe knows a guy who might give Bob a job, Joe should shut the hell up until Bob's finished venting. This may only take five minutes, or it might take a whole hour. Either way, its an important part of the process. Bob will not listen to what Joe has to say, unless Bob feels Joe fully understands his situation.
Empathy before education. Always.
How does Joe know when Bob's finished venting? He'll hear something different in Bob's voice: hope. When Bob is open for suggestions, he'll say something like, "what do you think I should do?" or "have you ever been in this situation before?" Only after Joe hears this, is Bob ready to listen to new ideas, new possibilities, and new ways of fixing this problem. Only after Joe hears hope, or a direct request for help, is Bob ready to hear what Joe wants to say. If Joe wants to help Bob, Joe needs patience.
Now... empathy is not easy, and its extraordinarily difficult for engineers.
Most technical people have been brainwashed by years of "education" into believing that there's a "right way" to do everything, and that its our job to fix it. When something is "wrong," we want to dive in and tell everybody how to make it "right" again. Its a trained compulsion. This is why engineers make lousy lovers, but excellent terrorists. In both cases, its a lack of empathy that dooms us to this fantasy world of absolute right and wrong, making it impossible to see things from another perspective.
Sound like anybody you know?
As such, it will be difficult for software engineers to learn empathy... but they needs lots of practice before they can move on to even more advanced forms of communication... which I'll be talking about on a later date ;-)
Should We Always Use Empathy?
That's a tricky question... empathy takes a lot of time, and sometimes you don't have the luxury. However, it is important to understand what empathy is, so when people "fall off the wagon" you won't take it personally...
For example, blogger James McGovern decided to practice empathy which got some props from Billy... however, James' blogging style does not lend itself well to empathy... He's snarky, and enjoys to inciting fights, so he can better understand who has a better position. If everything were puppies and rainbows, I'd probably stop reading his blog. No surprise that James then went back to his old self after about 23 hours...
And lets not forget Broc Samson's mystic journey in Venture Brothers... where in a dream he learns the value of empathy and feels great... but then is confronted by his former special ops trainer:
Broc Samson: What about uhhh, humanity and empathy and all that garbage? Hunter: You're a tool, boy, a tool! Built for a single purpose by the United States who shut your third god damned eye for a good f$%&ing reason! You can't teach a hammer to love nails, son. That dog won't hunt!
Yep... an army of empaths sure would be cool... but in the meantime, we live in a world of conflict... so until everybody understands the power of empathy, its probably best to know multiple ways to deal with conflict. In order, I prefer empathic communication, principled negotiation, then Broc Samson.
In the meantime... practice giving and getting empathy. Its far more powerful than you realize.