Can we train ourselves to be more empathetic?

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For a good while, I have been thinking more and more about the impact of our behaviour on our success and the success of the organisations we are part of. This brought me to observe people’s behaviour in trying to achieve a goal and the different reactions that each approach caused.

I have also done some experiments myself, trying to achieve the same goal using different behaviours on purpose.

The differentiator in the behaviours I have been observing is empathy

The subjects I have observed are of the type: developer, tester, analyst, business stakeholder, manager, leader.

What I found out is that the difference in the success of people with high empathy versus the less empathetic ones is astonishing. It is a different ball game. Empathetic people, get things done while building strong relationships and creating an enjoyable environment.

On the other hand, I have seen extremely skilled and capable people struggle to get anything done because their lack of empathy for their teammates made them choose behaviours that instead of achieving their goal, frustrated them and in some extreme cases made them withdraw into a corner full of anger and resentment with a common mantra: “they are idiots and they don’t understand”.

Being very empathetic, I feel very bad for them and I want to try to help.

You control how empathetic you are

The first thing I can do to help my less empathetic readers is to demonstrate to you that you are in control and can train your empathy to become more successful.

I believe we decide whether we want to act with empathy or not. Empathy is not in our DNA, it can be learned and improved. How do I know that? 

Let me tell you a story

A few years ago, driven by my burning curiosity, I had managed to get the hang on agile software development and I really thought I knew a lot about it.

Being an extrovert, I thrive when I am in the presence of big groups of people. At the same time, I am also an avid learner and I know that for me, sharing my thoughts in public, is the most effective way of learning something new.

One obvious  way of taking advantage of this two aspects of my character was to start participating actively to some Agile and Agile testing online groups with the honest intent to help people that needed help and learn in the process.

I tried. It was a train wreck.

My goal was learning by helping people resolve their problems, but the result was that I was pissing people off and pushing them further away from subjects that they found already enough challenging before they met me, the annoying Italian dickhead that thought he knew everything.

What was the cause of this disaster?

Was my knowledge on the subject not sufficient? Did I fail because of my incompetence?

No.

I knew enough to help the people starting with agile, I had the necessary knowledge and skills.

So what?

One day, I started following the answers of another person in the group let’s call him Mr. Joe. He was saying the same things I was saying, we agreed on everything, we even spoke a few times about how much we cared for the agile community and how much we wanted to help.

So, same skills, same motivation. Was he annoying people like me?

No. People loved him. They asked him direct questions and thanked him all the time.

I remember in one specific case, I got frustrated as I had spent quite a long time replying to a quite complex question with a good solution, then after I already did, Mr. Joe said the same things I said, in different terms.  and the person asking the question would thank him and ignore me.

Guess what? The person asking the question thanked Mr. Joe and completely blanked me.

Can you imagine? Somebody asks a question. I give him the right answer. Mr. Joe gives him the right answer after me. Mr. Somebody thanks Mr. Joe and blanks me.

I knew something was wrong and I started trying to find patterns, similarities and differences between me and Mr. Joe.

Then one day it hit me.

I was answering to “say the right thing”. Mr. Joe was answering because he cared that the person that asked the question would learn.

I felt stupid and ashamed of myself. I was really down. I realised how self-centered and selfish I had been while acting righteously as the “saviour of agile”.

Discovering bad things about ourselves is painful, but life has taught me that it is also the best thing that can happen to us because that’s the time we can make a decision to change and improve our lives.

I changed, bit by bit, slowly. Before answering any question on the forum, I started asking myself:

This person came to a public forum and asked for help on a subject he doesn’t know well, how might he feel?

How might this answer affect his feeling?

If I say this will he feel bad? How about I say it like this, same message but more positive, will he feel any better?

And it worked.

empathy

Week after week I started to get people contact me privately and thanking me for my time and help. They were telling me how my message had helped them resolve the problem.

I had been doing that exact same job for years and nobody ever did thank me. Then it became a stream of people thanking me for my help.

Be considerate, mindful, empathise with others. They will feel your empathy and compassion. They will want to work with you and their actions will also make you feel good about yourself.

It’s a win-win, we are both happy, why don’t you try?