A University of Virginia study in 2013 found that humans are hardwired for empathy. However, arguably we are not necessarily superb practitioners. Given that most software development, Agile or not, is done in a team, we need to find ways to hone the skill. An oft-quoted study from the University of Michigan published in 2010 found that students were less empathetic than in the 1980’s. Why this fall in observed empathy has occurred is open to debate, but stress, distractions, isolation (think about that home office) and multi-tasking have been suggested as contributors. Regardless of why we have gotten worse at empathy, there are steps that can be taken to get better at empathy. Those steps include:
- Pay Attention. Listen to what is being said. Paying attention to what is being said includes both the words and body language. Not wringing as much out of what is being said and how it is being said will make it difficult to build the connection needed to be empathetic. Distractions and multitasking rob attention from the core of any conversation or interaction.
- Fix: Start by putting the smartphone down or closing the laptop while you are interacting. Learn techniques such as active listening that are useful for building understanding.
- Communicate. Actually talk to people, listen to what is being said and respond empathetically. Sometimes people can find it difficult to communicate empathy; alternately, sometimes it can be difficult to understand when to communicate empathy. Part of the issue is learning when empathy is appropriate in a business environment.
- Fix(es): Be aware of the people around you. Begin by learning to observe body language and to listen to both to the language and tone being used in a conversation. Identify situations in which you have trouble expressing empathy. These scenarios often can be driven by a situation and who is involved. [HUH?] Reflect on why you had trouble expressing empathy. Another aspect of communication is tone. Begin by learning to control your own tone of voice. An exercise I use is to ask people to listen to a phrase said in multiple different ways to determine whether they can hear the different types of emotion behind the statement. In the exercise, I often break people into small teams to repeat the process. Learning to hear the emotion in people’s voice can help identify how to inject empathic statements into a conversation. Another step that is often useful is to identify someone that communicates empathy well and ask for help.
- Learning Games. Experience is often a powerful teaching tool to learn to be better at being empathetic.
- Fix(es): Practice empathy in a safe environment with a coach or a teacher. There are several learning games that can be used to help team members experience empathy. Mario Lucero (interviewed on SPaMCAST 334) suggests a game titled The Empathy Toy (a blind puzzle game). The goal of the game is to help the players learn to understand each other and work together outside of their normal frames of reference. Other games can be found on TastyCupcakes.org, a website with tons of learning games. The goal of all of these games is to help participants understand how building a deeper bridge between players yields better outcomes by exploring the concept of empathy. Learning games provide a platform to practice empathy in a safe environment.
We are hardwired for empathy. But, just because empathy is hardwired does not mean that we can’t hone our ability to apply empathy. Just adding emoticons on every line of an email is not honing empathy. In order to make a difference, you need to put yourself in a position to be empathetic and then practice. I understand that when a person or a team is stressed, self-absorbed or just lacks the time, the ability to be empathetic will suffer. Making space in order to pay attention to others and de-stressing your environment will improve your ability to apply empathy. In the end, to be empathetic, we need to be aware of others, let them have their say (don’t interrupt) while we listen and understand both logically and emotionally. Perhaps empathy requires adopting the beginner’s mind which embodies openness, eagerness and lack of preconceptions.