Jonathan Lazzara June 9, 2020
It’s a strange feeling to be writing content for a tech-oriented blog at the moment. I honestly don’t know what to say or feel. It seems futile to attempt to articulate any of it, and conveying the amount of compassion I want to express in a written format is beyond my capability. I’m not going to set context for future audiences. Hopefully it’s not necessary because we’ll have done better, and this time in history won’t be forgotten.
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy. It’s something that I didn’t have much of early in my professional career, but as I accumulate more experience (and age) I find myself focusing on developing empathy more than any technical skill. Perhaps the more experiences we have, the more we realize that our experiences are a modicum of all possibilities. I spend various amounts of time each day actively trying to be more empathic: speaking less and listening more, asking questions before offering an opinion. I’m not going to explain the ways in which it can help in day-to-day software roles (there are plenty of great articles on that) but rather present a few thoughts on why I believe we all need to take a deliberate stance on developing empathy.
As technologists, we spend a considerable amount of time debating potential solutions. Our bias is to focus on the technical aspects of a problem. We do lengthy research, hone our craft with experiments, and try to absorb as much technical information as we can. We may spend years on a given team, during which time we design solutions for many technical problems. Teams change relatively slowly in comparison to how many solutions most teams produce. This means that how we communicate has much more stamina than what we communicate. Yet, we don’t spend nearly as much time reading about listening techniques as we do researching deployment strategies. If the relationships within a team are more lasting and important than any solution, then shouldn’t our efforts be aligned with improving those relationships, and understanding others in a much richer context?
As organizations, we have the power to encourage practices and behaviors. We have the ability to set precedence for the importance of empathy and the development of our cultures. Terms like EQ give us a convenient way to generalize a multi-faceted concept, but what are we doing to foster the development of emotional intelligence on a regular basis? We can organize regular open-forum book clubs focusing on these topics. We can set aside dedicated time to coming together as teams and sharing our experience. Adopting practices as simple as moderated meetings can help actively promote better dialog.
I don’t know how much my lack of professional empathy impacted my career, but I wish I would have focused on the concept much sooner. Our unconscious biases will never go away. We must actively seek new understanding and perspective.