Empathy is the most important skill you can practise. It will lead to greater success personally and professionally, and it will allow you to become happier.
Picture: Vladgrin (Shutterstock)
This post originally appeared on Chad Fowler’s blog.
I’ve never considered myself a real programmer. I know at this point it’s probably silly to say, but I started my scholastic and professional life as a musician, and I’ve never quite recovered from the impostor syndrome that comes with making such a shift. One of the faux-self-deprecations I use to describe myself is: “I’m a people person who just happens to express this tendency through programming and technology projects.”
This seems a bit ironic, because I’m also a very strong introvert. I recharge when I’m alone or in very small groups of people (no more than two including myself is ideal) and I exhaust myself in crowds or in constant discussion. But, on reflection, this all fits together perfectly. The reason crowds of people exhaust me is that I am constantly trying to read and understand the feelings and motivations of those around me. If I could just go through life talking and not listening, hearing but not processing, alone time and time in groups wouldn’t be so different for me. But I can’t, and I obviously don’t think I should.
Coming back to the impostor-syndrome-induced self-identification as a “people person” rather than a programmer, I guess when I say that I’m probably right. I spend much more time and much more effort learning how to understand the people around me than I do code, systems, architectures, and technologies. I’m not an expert or even remarkable at it, but I work on it consciously and consistently. The it I’m describing here is called “empathy”:
the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner — Merriam Webster
As exhausting as it is for me, this is the primary reason for the success and good fortune I’ve enjoyed in my life.
Why Practise Empathy?
Why should you explicitly work to enhance your ability to empathise with others?
- You will be more likely to treat the people you care about the way they wish you would treat them.
- You will better understand the needs of people around you.
- You will more clearly understand the perception you create in others with your words and actions.
- You will understand the unspoken parts of your communication with others.
- You will better understand the needs of your customers at work.
- You will have less trouble dealing with interpersonal conflict both at home and at work.
- You will be able to more accurately predict the actions and reactions of people you interact with.
- You will learn how to motivate the people around you.
- You will more effectively convince others of your point of view.
- You will experience the world in higher resolution as you perceive through not only your perspective but the perspectives of those around you.
- You will find it easier to deal with the negativity of others if you can better understand their motivations and fears. Lately when I find myself personally struggling with someone, I remind myself to empathise and I immediately calm myself and accept the situation for what it is.
You will be a better leader, a better follower, and most important, a better friend.
How to Practise
Here are a few ideas on how to develop your empathy.
Listen intently when people speak to you. Conversations, especially regarding heated topics, often form a rhythm of back and forth speaking, with each party starting a point just before the conversation partner has ended his or her point. I’m sure you will recognise this pattern in yourself if you think about it. Before whoever is speaking has finished, you have already formulated your response, and you can’t wait to spit it out.
Next time you find yourself in a conversation like this, slow down. Force yourself to listen to the words you’re hearing. Consider the speaker’s motivation behind saying what he or she is saying. Consider the life and work experience that has led to his or her current world-view.
Respond visually and with sound (“ah”, “oh”, “ya?”) but allow at least a second to pass before responding verbally. Ask followup questions to better understand what the speaker intended or how they feel before you respond with your own opinions. Hopefully you’ll need more time before you speak, because you’ve been too focused on the speaker to start preparing your response.
Watch and Wonder
Put down your cell phone. Instead of checking Twitter or reading articles while you wait for the train or are stuck in a traffic jam, look at the people around you and imagine who they might be, what they might be thinking and feeling, and where they are trying to go right now. Are they frustrated? Happy? Singing? Looking at their phones? Do they live here or are they from out of town? Have they had a nice day? Try to actually wonder and care.
Know Your Enemies
Maybe “enemies” is an exaggeration here, but think about a tense, preferably ongoing dispute you have with someone. Maybe it’s a co-worker in a competing faction for how you should do some critical part of your work. Maybe it’s a family member you’re constantly warring with for some reason. Whoever it is, you’re used to them being wrong and you being right. You tend to even jump to disagreeing with them regardless of what they are arguing for, because you are on opposite sides of the war.
Now imagine the entire situation from that person’s point of view. The person is probably not evil or an idiot. They might not even be wrong about whatever it is you disagree about. In my own life, the problem is usually more of a fundamental philosophical difference than about the specific conflicts that occur.
How does this person feel about how you respond to them when you disagree? What fears cause the other person to be tense and hard to reason with? How do you exacerbate those fears rather than calm them? What valid arguments could this person make against your views and your handling of the situation? What good intentions does this person hold? What are the positive motivations behind what you perceive as a negative outcome? Do you agree with the motivations? If so, are they more important than the specific conflict?
If you’re like me, just going through this exercise (maybe a couple of times with the same subject) can greatly reduce your frustration and anxiety over some of the most stressful inter-personal situations. It may sound obvious, but doing it is very different from understanding how it could work.
Choose the Other Side
While talking with Kelly about practicing empathy, she had a great idea. It’s hard to side with your own “enemy” as I suggested above. It requires a forced third person perspective, which takes a lot of discipline when you’re thinking about your own stress and emotions.
So to make it easier, try it as an actual third person. We all have friends and loved ones that complain to us about how they have been treated by other people. It’s human nature to complain and it’s the duty of a loved one to listen sympathetically. The assumption is that the listener is on the side of the complainer. A supportive friend or loved one almost always is, instinctually.
Try practicing (internally) taking the opposing view point. Don’t go with your default reaction immediately. Start on the other side and work your way back. This reminds me of a cool technique Dave Thomas blogged about several years (almost 11 years ago, wow!) ago called debating with knives. It’s an exercise which forces you onto both sides of a debate to help open your mind to the realities of the topic under discussion.
This is probably all obvious, but I doubt many people really practise empathy. I hope you will give it a try, even for a short while, and I hope it improves your life and the lives of those around you even if just a little.
Your Most Important Skill: Empathy [Chad Fowler]
Chad Fowler is CTO of 6Wunderkinder, makers of Wunderlist. He is the author or co-author of a number of popular software books, including Rails Recipes and The Passionate Programmer: Creating a Remarkable Career in Software Development.