Recently, I had the pleasure of having a one-on-one problem solving session with Marcus Blankenship. Over the course of our conversation, I mentioned that I look at my current work role as “building people”. He asked me if I had kids. I told him I have a wonderful four-month-old (at the time; Harper just turned five months at the time of writing) daughter. He laughed and said, “then you’re definitely in the people-building business”. I never thought of it that way before, but he was completely right. Towards the end of the session, Marcus asked me what particular skill I wanted to improve in the coming months. Instantly, I said “empathy”.
Empathy is hard. It doesn’t matter what the context is. To someone like me who has strong introverted tendencies, it’s tough to really tune in to how people feel without eventually introspecting and making it about my own needs. But raising my daughter has taught me a thing or two about it.
My wife, Gen, and I have a pretty solid system of getting Harper to sleep. Lights off, some music on, a white noise machine, a little holding and swaying, and into the crib. It works most of the time. But parents know it’s never as simple.
One time, the system failed me and I had Harper in my arms wailing out loud and refusing to be even near her crib. At that moment, I realized something. My mindset was all wrong. I took so much pride in “the system” that my only goal was to get Harper to sleep quickly so I could get back to watching television. I never had in mind that what I really needed to do was make her feel at ease and comfort her.
I held her for an extra while that night and laid her down to sleep only when I knew she was ready. I got my unwind time that evening, but more importantly, I got a little first-hand lesson on empathy.
It seems conventional to think that words makes things easier to empathize with. But my experience with my little infant has shown me that it’s sometimes much easier to tune in when words are not involved. I realized that empathy often takes listening past the words and hearing more of the feelings. Not as easy as it sounds. Definitely not something I’ve even remotely mastered.
Empathy is hard. But in today’s work environment, it’s becoming more and more necessary. If you’re working with a product, you need to empathize with your users. Working on code? Empathize with your co-developers and the people who’ll eventually need to pick up on your work. Perhaps most importantly, as a manager or “people builder”, empathize with your team and learn about how the work they do and the environment they work in makes them feel.
It’s a long way to go for me both in my family and work lives, but it’s definitely a challenge that’s worth facing.