Empathy in Communication

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Fact: fuzzy cows can moo. 🐮

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^ This grumpy cow has a lot to say.

Sometime last year, my friend and I went to see Trainwreck.

Me: That was awesome! It was hilarious and so honest!

Friend: That was annoying! And trashy!

What the heck? We just spent two hours sitting through the exact same movie. How did we walk away with such different reactions?

Now transfer this experience to a conversation you might have had with a colleague or a friend. The two of you were in the exact same conversation, but likely walked away with entirely different takes on what just happened.

Maybe you were trying to compliment your friend on their recent promotion at work, and they thought you were flaunting your success. Maybe you were trying to share an idea with a colleague, and they thought you were saying their ideas were bad.

Everyone comes into an exchange with different backgrounds. Think about your friends, or your colleagues:

  • Maybe they grew up in a different culture or country.
  • Maybe they had a different type of education.
  • Maybe they communicate best verbally, and you communicate best by writing.
  • Maybe their family had a different set of values than yours.
  • Maybe you’re older and they’re younger.
  • Maybe they’re male and you’re female.
  • Maybe you’ve thought a lot about the topic, and they don’t really care about it.
  • Maybe they’re an introvert and you’re an extrovert.
  • Maybe they’re a practical and critical thinker, and you’re a intuitive and perceptive thinker#
  • Maybe they’re hungry and had a grumpy day, and you’ve just come back from vacation!

Communication is like playing catch with a lump of clay. As you throw the clay back and forth, it gets shaped by the individuals’ perceptions, knowledge, and experience. Through the feedback from each participant, meaning is created.

The analogy comes from this TED video (it’s a bit longwinded, but I wanted to give it credit):

Often times, instead of shaping a lump of clay, online communication feels like chucking a baseball at someone’s face.

You’re planning a group trip and your friend expects you to “get it” just because they emailed the itinerary to you. You’re working with your team and you expect your colleague to “get it” just because you pinged them with a set of tasks on Slack. That’s like me expecting you to “get” the iTunes Terms and Conditions. I’ve put it on front of you, but it doesn’t mean that I’ve communicated it to you.

Feedback cycles online are long and painful. It’s low-bandwidth because you lose context about a person’s whereabouts, mood, and attention. Online, whether it’s with a friend or with a coworker, you need to work that much harder at building common understanding on where everyone is coming from.

A study in 2010 tried to define what caused some teams to work smarter than other teams. They tested these teams in both in-person and online-only communication, and they found that no matter what, empathetic communication was an important component in a team’s success.

What makes teams smart must be not just the ability to read facial expressions, but a more general ability, known as “Theory of Mind,” to consider and keep track of what other people feel, know and believe. – Why Some Teams are Smarter than Others, NYT

So, the next time you’re communicating with a friend or co-worker, don’t think of it as a baseball, “chucking” something their way and expecting them to “catch it.” It’s about working together to build common understanding, and stopping to clarify when necessary.

Empathetic communication as a sign of respect. I respect where you are coming from, I value your perspective, and I will work with you to achieve understanding.

The success of your idea depends not on the knowledge you send but by what the listener receives. – Samantha Ready, during her “Getting Ideas to Stick” presentation.

Related: This topic was a 5-minute talk I gave at our team’s recent meetup in Barcelona. Previously, I spoke on meditation.

Extra reading: The more teammates take turns to speak, the more collective intelligence a group has. Teams with more collective intelligence tend to be more successful. More here.

Extra extra reading: People from different backgrounds write different types of resumes and cover letters, because of their experiences and what they’ve been taught. (For example, some cultures might be more “formal” in their cover letters.) This can be problematic when companies cite “cultural fit” as an important factor in hiring. More here.