“The Right Way to Practice Empathy”- By Poornima Vijayashanker
Last week we aired the pilot episode of FemgineerTV on: How to Build a Happy and Productive Remote Team. During the episode, Ben Congleton, and I talked about a number of misconceptions people have when it comes to running a remote team. Ben also shared some strategies for tackling each misconception.
My favorite was the conversation around the misconception that a remote team will be devoid of culture and people just won’t care about one another.
Ben gave us a great example of how it’s easy to jump to conclusions about people’s intentions, like if someone criticizes the product. Jumping to conclusions and making assumptions about people’s intentions and motivations is what leads to a culture that is closed off, and that can happen on a remote team or a team that is in the same location.
Olark has worked hard to practice values that will create an open culture and one that cares about each other. They’ve done this through two of their core values: assume good faith and practice empathy.
Upon hearing Ben, you might have thought, “Well that’s just great for Ben and his compassionate company, but that would never fly at my company!”
Or, “Why is this even important? We need to focus on getting stuff done!”
Well it just so happens that often what causes a lack of motivation, missed deadlines, and high employee turnover is employees thinking their teammates, bosses, and management at their company don’t “get them”. They don’t get them, because their co-workers jump to conclusions or assume their intentions and motivations.
But it doesn’t just stop there…
A lack of empathy actually seeps into how products are created, and customers feeling the same way!
So how do we stop this?
We have to learn to practice empathy.
Unfortunately, empathy has been misconstrued to mean being kind, compassionate, and tolerant towards others who might have a different perspective than you.
That’s not what it means.
Empathy is about developing a deep understanding about another person, and that deep understanding can only come when you listen to another person. My good friend Indi Young, who was formerly a founder at Adaptive Path, recently wrote a book called Practical Empathy. In it, she shares strategies you can use to practice empathy, and how it will benefit your team and product development.
Interviews feel like interrogations
For years the assumption has been that interviewing someone is the best approach to understanding their opinions and perspective. But we need more than that!
Practicing empathy goes deeper than understanding a person’s opinions and perspective. To really understand another person, we need to understand their actions, which means getting them to share their thoughts, reactions, and guiding principles.
That’s a pretty big ASK, and requires that people are open to sharing
Most people will be closed off if they don’t feel comfortable because they feel like they’re being judged or can’t trust you.
Interviews won’t get them to open up. Interviews are perceived as a cold approach. While they might expose some facets of a person’s thinking, they aren’t the best conduit for building trust and putting a person at ease.
Indi introduces a new concept called listening sessions. Here’s how they are different from interviews:
- You don’t come with a list of questions!
- You aren’t driving the conversation, the speaker is.
- The only goal is to develop a deeper understanding of the person you are listening to.
This might seem strange because as innovators we’re used to listening to people’s problems, then prescribing a solution for it. During a listening session the goal isn’t to come up with a solution. One quick way to practice empathy is just to listen and understand.
As the listener your only tasks are to:
- Resist the urge to interject or pass judgment
- Neutralize your reactions
You shouldn’t even take notes! The point is be present and listen. If you are listening to a customer, then Indi recommends asking for permission to record the conversation. That might seem awkward with a co-worker.
How to start practicing
1. Start with a broad topic. It can be as simple as, “You mentioned wanting to attend a conference this year…”
2. Follow up with a simple and short question like, “Why?” “Why attend?” “Tell me more about it.” “Because?” Just be careful about the tone of your voice as you say it!
3. Let the speaker steer the conversation and direction of it, which means you need to avoid talking about yourself and saying transitions like, “Okay, great.” Or, “Let’s switch gears.” These phrases signal a desire to end or move on, but that makes it harder to get greater detail out of the speaker. Instead use phrases like, “Tell me your thinking.” “What was on your mind?”
Finally, as someone is speaking it can be easy to want to react or pass judgment, but you have to learn to neutralize these reactions to be fully present, listen, and put the other person at ease. This takes time and practice.
Do you really get them?
It’s easy to think that you get someone after a single listening session. But if people are telling you a story, then they will just be sharing a series of events. This leaves you guessing the reason why something happened.
If you’re left guessing then you don’t have a deep understanding of their decision making process or know the principles that guide them. It leaves you drawing conclusions.
Instead of guessing or drawing conclusions, actually take them time to ask them: why?
Channel your inner child
You might feel a little bit like a toddler asking, “Why?” And if you do, then you’re doing it right!
[quote author=”Indi Young”]Get into the toddler frame of mind. Toddlers are really comfortable with letting their brains feel empty. They don’t have the same internal reasoning going on that adults have. Toddlers just absorb what is being said. As they encounter ideas that aren’t clear or are a new use of words, they ask for an explanation. They ask “why?” in succession. They are not embarrassed about not knowing.[/quote]
Of course you’re probably still wondering how this benefits you and your company. As Ben mentioned in the pilot, when you discover why someone acted a certain way, you get to their true intentions and motivations. You discover that most of the time they share your end goal. They might have taken a different approach to achieve it, but they had good intentions. You in turn learn to trust them more because you have a deep understanding of their reasoning and guiding principles!
You’ll also discover if they don’t have good intentions and aren’t the right fit for your company.
If you’re curious about learning how to practice empathy and all of its benefits check out Indi Young’s book Practical Empathy here.
Now I want to know if you’ve have had a listening session similar to the one described in this post, either at home or work? What were the challenges you experienced as a listener and the benefits, and do you have recommendations for others? Let me know in the comments below!