Empathy

So this has been on my mind a lot lately and being that I am stranded in London right now with not much to do today I am going to continue to procrastinate the kubicorn backlog and write a blog post about empathy instead.

So I first re-evaluated my understanding of the word last year when I was interviewing for a developer advocacy role at Google (I obviously didn’t get it).

One of the things my recruiter told me to demonstrate was developer empathy. That is when I first started re-thinking the word in my older age.

Note: I think it’s a good idea to re-learn words as you grow wiser. I try to do it often.

So here is what empathy means to me:

The ability to understand and share experiences with another based on your own experiences. 

Stepping towards empathy

For me the first step in being empathetic is increasing the chance that I have been in a similar situation that another has. Usually I do this by overcoming my fear of new adventures, and saying to yes to things I would normally say no to.

So after a few years of living a fairly intense lifestyle, I feel like I have shared a number of feelings. I have also taken some time to explore and understand each of them.

The next step involved learning how to share experiences without belittling someone.

Once upon a time I was in a situation where my partner’s one true best friend had suddenly passed away. For her it was beyond a tragedy. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like.

Literally that was the lesson. I couldn’t empathize because nothing like that has ever happened to me. I have been sad, and have lost pets and loved ones in the past. But nothing remotely similar to losing my best friend. So in a time when she needed empathy, I did my best, but ultimately was unable to fill that void.

It was hard, but I learned to accept the fact that all I could do was try to empathize.

Attempting to be truly empathetic

Trying to share experiences is like trying to determine if colors appear the same to me and you.

It’s just fundamentally hard to do.

I remember the first time I experienced fear at work. It was my first tech job, and the first few months consisted of me being afraid I was going to get fired. Pretty much all the time.

Every once in a while I talk to someone, who also has similar fear at work. I usually share my story, and hope that my story helps them feel like they are not alone.

I make it a point to never assume that one story is more intense or serious than the other, and I always remember that it might have been more intense than it was made out to be.

There is a moment, when you are both together, and you connect. You realize you aren’t alone. To me that is the goal of being empathetic. The connection when you both feel better to have a companion in your life.

When bad things happen

Sometimes bad things happen to me. Sure they hurt me, or I feel upset but being hurt and upset is normal. Everyone gets hurt in their lives.

Unfortunately I feel that it is a very American response to go from being upset to taking action.

Frankly, that is a very weird thing to do. In my opinion, this is a result of bad parenting.

My parents taught me that the best way to get attention and affection was in reaction to being upset or hurt. It’s a lesson I’m still trying to unlearn.

So let’s take an example. Imagine you were climbing a tree. You accidentally fall out of the tree and get hurt.

I have grouped a few possible responses together based on things that commonly happen to me. Try to think what you would do in this situation before reading on.

The Mansplainer

Well gravity is one of the four fundamental forces, if you are in a situation where you don’t hang on tight enough you will get hurt. This is just basic physics. You should have held on tighter. Now. To get to the hospital you wanna go 2 blocks north, turn left…

Offering an explanation to why something happened usually doesn’t help anyone, it just makes you come off as pretentious.

The next time someone is flailing about on the ground with a broken arm asking how many Newtons per second squared the acceleration of gravity is let er rip… but in the mean time just keep your douchy-ness to yourself.

 

The Micromanager

Okay this is a mild hairline fracture. You WILL be okay if you listen to me and do EVERYTHING I say IN THE ORDER I SAY IT.

First, you need to wrap the wound with 4 layers of gauze. Don’t move. Continue you to breathe deep.

Then you need to give me your phone so I can call an ambulance,

Then you…

Bro. Just because I fell out of a tree doesn’t mean I am your child. It just means I fell out of tree.

Do you even respect me enough to entertain the idea that asking me what you can do to help is an option?

Who knows.. maybe I have opinions here. Like maybe I am fine? Or..

..maybe I landed on a mound of fire ants you don’t even know about yet and I need a few seconds to explain that you need to get the fuck off of me before we both get eaten alive by fire ants.

Seriously.

The Belittling Wannabe Empathizer

I remember the time I fell out of a bush.

I was 12 years old, and would never make this mistake again. In fact this is why I never climb trees or bushes. You should be more like me.

I broke my arm in two places, and had to be rushed immediately to the hospital. If you lived your life in the same way I lived my life you wouldn’t have to worry about..

This isn’t empathy. This is a hybrid of the above two, with a touch of high level philosophy. It’s total shit. If you do this, punch yourself in the face. You have never fallen out of a tree, and you haven’t even given me a chance to explain if I am okay or not.

Talk to me once you have fallen out of a tree, and respect me enough to know that every tree might be different. I fell 10 times further than you did, and we have no idea how fucked up I am yet because you won’t shut up with your life story of falling out of a bush.

The Most Beautiful Friend You Have

Oh wow you fell out of a tree. That must suck.

That’s it. You don’t even have to tell me if you have fallen out of a tree yourself yet.

Tonight, when I get back from the emergency room, and we are eating steaks by the fire (because that is what you do after you go to the ER obviously) you can tell me the story of when you fell out of a tree. Or even a bush if you tell the story right.

Just let me fall out of a tree. Who knows I might even ask for help after I explain that there are deadly fire ants about to attack us.

Just love me.

Just respect me.

Just let me fall out of a god damned tree.

Developer Empathy

It’s no different than dishwasher empathy or mowing the lawn empathy it just means I have done the same thing you have, and I am trying to connect with you.

So I approach developer empathy (in my day job) the exact same way.

If you need anything let me know, but in the mean time I am so sorry you fell out of a tree. That must suck. I still love you.

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1 Comment

  1. TM

    November 4, 2017 at 16:22

    What if someone falls out of a tree, then comes to you and says “I can’t believe I just fell out of a tree! I’m poking my broken arm to punish myself for not being a better tree climber.”

    My response was: “Oh no! Don’t punish yourself! Everyone falls out of trees sometimes, it’s how we get better at climbing! You’re a great tree climber and everyone knows how committed you are to tree climbing. Also, that was a really difficult tree you tried to climb.”
    I feel like this was a just-okay response – in particular the advice on how falling is really just a way to get better at tree climbing. What do you think?

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