Empathy and Compassion in Communication: Learnings From an Engineer
Effective engineers are strong problem solvers. Great engineers have also become inspiring leaders and master communicators. Whether you want to take your career to the next level, or simply aspire to round-up your skillset, leveling up your self-awareness and communication skills will open many doors on your personal and professional path. In a spirit of sharing, here are four lessons I have learned.
A Tale of Two Voices
The story began when I was nine years old. Personal Computers were beginning to make their way into schools and libraries. I was privileged and fortunate enough to have one at home, and very lucky to find a friend who taught me the essentials of hardware and software. In those days you needed to know both. You would program the chip directly, there was no Garbage Collection and, in this case, a fancy 512 KB of memory to play with. Computer programming was a different animal altogether, and quite fun to me. It felt like a game, and still does to this day. And so, I followed a somewhat established path of math and science education to eventually land a job at playing my favorite game. Mission complete? Well, not quite.
As time went by, I eventually realized that my need for connection with others wasn’t quite fulfilled through my studies or my work. It didn’t feel like I was helping and connecting with others in a direct and meaningful way. I was intrigued and curious about other business functions, especially product and marketing, which heavily rely on communication. “What’s so hard about it?”, I thought. I was in for quite a surprise. I could never have imagined, even in my wildest dreams, how subtle, complex and refined that new game can get.
As I decide to undertake the journey and start a new business in Chile in 2002, I soon realize that the task at hand was daunting, not that of building our product, but that of building our product together. This adventure of collaboration altered the course of my journey. It crystallized into a realization that “Communicating with computers is far simpler than communicating with people”, or to put it in reassuring engineering language, “People are systems of immense complexity, and spoken languages, protocols of colossal intricacy.”
So I began learning. I listened to the advice of peers and proven communicators and carefully watched them in action. I read books on effective communication, emotional intelligence, and team leadership and practiced one skill at a time before moving on to the next one. One of the most important steps I took was reaching out to teammates whom I had failed to listen to, understand and support effectively. I asked them what I could have done better, and I listened.
Learning, to me, encompasses the purpose of life. It is playful in its essence and makes living about the journey rather than the destination.
1. Listen, listen, listen… and watch
- Listen with your ears, eyes and heart, not just with your head
- Speak tentatively and create space for others to safely share their stories
- Watch and listen to yourself as much as others
- Stay candid when it is hard to do so, because that is when it matters the most
- Leverage mirroring and other active listening techniques
Exploring possibilities with teammates, friends and mentors is often a good way to start learning any skill. So I asked around.
“In your opinion, what are the three most important skills in communication?”
Nearly invariably, “Listening” was part of the answer. David Deal, whom I consider an expert craftsman in that field, and who happens to help me write these very lines, answered that question with “1. Listen, 2. Listen, 3. Listen.”
What does it mean to listen, and how can we get better at it? I believe the answer greatly depends on our degrees of extroversion, and intuition. Listening is in part creating space and safety for others to participate in the exchange of information. The more extroverted we are in relation to others, the more we should be self-aware of our propensity to occupy that space and refrain from doing so. Listening means opening our mind to the ideas of others, and broadening our perspective by leveraging diversity of thoughts.
“Listen with the intent to understand, not respond.” -Stephen Covey
The more intuitive we are, the more we tend to solve puzzles and search for information inside instead of outside. And so we listen to our own internal voice using our mind rather than to the voice of others, using our ears. If you are intuitive, which can be considered a trait for many engineers, try to tame your inside voice and make the effort to clearly listen to others. If you are ever in doubt, you can always use paraphrasing and other active listening techniques. Many experiments have proven that the exact intended meaning of a message, is nearly never fully understood. And so, we can always pause and resort to constructions such as:
“This is what I heard you say: <fill in>. I understand what you mean is <extract meaning>. Is that correct? Are we on the same page?”
Once that checkpoint cleared, you can continue on to the next, etc…
Finally, being in receiving mode means listening for a message. That message is not solely composed of words. If we are in an oral conversation, intonation becomes a crucial part of the meaning. Even more importantly, body language can reveal an undercurrent that is most often unintentional. It is therefore critical to learn to look and become attuned with one’s emotion inside, and others’ outside, as they tell us a raw, unfiltered story about ourselves, our teammates and about the dynamics in a meeting room.
2. Stick to observations, avoid judgements and evaluations
- Slow down, recognize when you are telling yourself “villains or victims” stories
- Search for explanations that presuppose of positive intent
- Question yourself to grow. You are the only one that you can change
- Use a pragmatic language of observations devoid of evaluations
One of the major hurdles we create for ourselves is making suppositions that, in the blink of an eye become assumptions, increasing and confirming our biases while dictating our emotional response, and subsequently our behavior. These stories are often unconsciously designed to validate our pre-existing biases and to explain the world in a way that doesn’t require questioning ourselves, thereby preventing us from learning and growing.
Our prefrontal cortex (part of the new hardware that evolution has provided us) is in a perpetual quest of understanding and predicting the world around us. It does so very fast, and generally assumes a worst case scenario. This evolution design is at the root of “fight, flight, or freeze” and other primitive behaviors that helped our ancestors escape predators. This kind of responses, however, are counterproductive in our modern world, where teamwork and collaboration are essential to success.
Validating assumptions that support the shortest and the easiest way to an explanation, prevents us from questioning ourselves. This can result in finger pointing supported by our invented villain and victim stories. It prevents us as a group from understanding a situation objectively. On the other hand, we can decide to ask ourselves questions such as “Where could I be mistaken?” and “What can I do about the current situation?”
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” -Viktor E. Frankl
As scientists and engineers, we tend to be pragmatic, at least in the practice of our craft. However, staying away from judgements and evaluation of intentions of others and of ourselves can be tricky. Developing a pragmatic language of observations, and abstaining from judging intentions or pretending we are mind readers can help a lot.
We know we are emitting a judgment when we give implicit intention to the subject in our sentence. For example:
- “My teenage daughter is disrespectful to adults.”
- “Joey ridiculed me in front of our boss at this morning’s stand-up”
We can choose to stay away from judgements and evaluation by candidly sticking to observations. Observations are often expressed as gaps between what we observe and what we expected. Here are a few examples from Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication:
Evaluation: “The boss is procrastinating around this decision.”
Observation: “The boss told us she would announce the decision by last week, but we still haven’t heard.”
Evaluation: “You lied to me about your grades.”
Observation: “I heard you say you passed all your courses, but this report shows two F’s.”
We should also be aware that construct such as “he/she thinks that”, are assertions that imply mind reading. It is another form of evaluation that steers us away from facts and reality. For example:
- “My boss thinks I don’t care about the project.”
- “My husband believes I don’t love him.”
Simply put: we never know what other people are thinking, it is hard enough to figure out what’s on our own minds!
Now, let’s go back to the judgment:
- “Joey ridiculed me in front of our boss at this morning’s stand-up.”
The first story that comes to mind might be:
- “Joey wants to get a promotion and therefore he made fun of me at the stand-up to assert his dominance in front of our boss.”
It is easy to spot a villain and victim story here. This is a good signal to prompt the following question:
- “Can I think of something else that would explain Joey’s behavior without making him a villain or me a victim?”
By doing so and pausing time between stimuli and response, we might end up with other stories such as:
- “Joey saw our boss was uncomfortable and wanted to crack a joke. He wanted to re-establish safety in the conversation for him. He also fully expected me to be witty and come back at him to further diffuse the tension in the room. It was nothing personal.”
- “Oh… now I remember I did the same thing to him last week, and I didn’t realize he was upset about it until now, maybe I could go talk to him, find out and apologize for last week’s incident.”
We have no real way to fully assess someone else’s intentions. What we can do is choosing the stories we tell ourselves and own the space between stimuli and response.
3. Resort to your problem-solving abilities
- Analyze problems in a systematic, pragmatic way, and don’t stop there
- Assess whether you want to tackle the situation or not
- Ask yourself “What is it that I can do about it?”
- Use a language of gaps and possibilities rather than one of problems
- Propose multiple solutions, as diverse as possible
- Honestly list the pros/cons staying away from your own biases
- Establish a plan to bridge the gap and a way to measure progress
- Follow up regularly
- Avoid resorting to problem solving when you engage with someone in an emotionally challenging place, unless they request it.
As engineers and scientists, we have an innate curiosity and desire to figure out how systems work. By understanding how something works, we can come up with hypotheses on how certain changes affect its behavior, and subsequently empirically verify our predictions. Business and communication are no different and can be looked at under this same lens.
Identifying a problem however, is just the first step toward speaking it out. As a young engineer, I often found myself stopping at that step and just communicating the problem once identified. That was a fundamental mistake. Despite noble intentions, we will often be perceived as problem makers, not problem solvers.
Once we identify a problem (the “What”), the first thing we need to address is whether or not there is enough at stake to justify the cost of beginning to explore solutions and eventually solving it (the “If”). We subconsciously do this all the time, when we screen out information to focus on what matters. The same can be applied to problem solving. Not every single problem needs to be solved. Our bandwidth and willpower are limited, and we ought to prioritize and focus on what matters from a business, personal or relationships standpoint.
We can start to reflect and prepare our communication. One of the most empowering question we can ask ourselves anytime we encounter a challenge is: “What is it that I can do about it?”. Put emphasis on the “I” and point both index fingers at yourself while asking this question. Sometimes it feels like things are out of our hands. But in truth, there is always something we can do about it. We always have a choice to talk and act in a candid fashion, or not to. Taking ownership of our part is an efficient way to start a positive dynamic with compassionate intentions, and will set us up for success when we engage in communication.
If we decide to move forward, we then need to clearly articulate the “What” we identified in the previous step. Most often, a good approach is to describe the issue as a gap and quantifying it whenever possible. Expressing a gap is simply saying “Here we are. We want to get there. What can we do about it?” Speaking in terms of gaps is a language of possibilities and opportunities instead of a language of problems, concerns, blame, and exhortation. Here is an example that illustrates the contrast between the two approaches:
Problem language: “I have some bad news. We are tracking behind our sales target.”
Possibilities language: “It is January 31st and we are currently at $200K in sales for Q1. Our goal is to reach $900K by the end of Q1. So, we are currently tracking $100K behind. Let’s talk, what can we can do to bridge that gap?”
Possibility lies in making a difference and creating value from a situation, without denying that certain issues exist. -Benjamin Zander
The next step is challenging ourselves to express as many potential solutions as we can think of. It is important to keep our mind open, as we always tend to fall into our biases and convincing ourselves that “This is the only real way.” At this point, we really help resolve issues and become problem solvers. An efficient way to keep each other in check when exploring and comparing multiple options, is to pragmatically list the pros and cons for each of them.
Once a plan is chosen to address the gap, we can figure out ways to measure progress as objectively as possible. Timelines and Gantt charts are often applicable here, and we can also decide to measure progress based on value output KPIs, which take into account key parts of the gap we are bridging. The trick here is to find the right balance where what is measure is not too generic and abstract and not too specific either.
Finally, make a point to follow up regularly. Failing to do so is failing to promote healthy accountability, and somewhat nullifies all the work that was done to this point. We can share status updates, use information radiators such as digital and physical boards and foster a culture transparency, accountability and predictability
Problem solving and gap bridging are great tools to have in our bag, but they are not adapted to every situation. In fact they can be destructive and counterproductive when someone is emotionally struggling. In such instances we need to resort to simply expressing empathy and practicing compassion.
4. Show empathy and practice compassion
- Empathy and compassion are crucial at all levels of communication, especially in conflict resolution and emotional support
- Refrain from using problem solving (3.)
- Put your opinions aside and listen (1.)
- Validate his/her perspective
- If you can genuinely relate, express your feelings
- Ask what he/she would do, and refrain from debating
- Sometime just being there in silence is enough, and sometime being compassionate is respecting the need of others to be alone
Sometimes we all find ourselves communicating with someone who is upset, perhaps experiencing a difficult problem at work or going through a challenging time in their lives. In these situations, avoid resorting to problem solving. When someone is overwhelmed by their feelings, you do not want to engage with their logic centers. What you do want is to connect and support them on an emotional level, thereby giving them something to relate to and to hold onto.
It therefore important to refrain from diminishing how someone feels. Sugar-coating or trying to minimize the impact of the situation at stake can sound like this:
- “This is no big deal, don’t worry you will be alright”
Here the message is:
- “I can’t relate to you. I have no idea what you are going through and I can’t feel your pain.”
Similarly, you want to be very wary of patronizing:
“If you think what happened to you is bad, let me tell you what I went through last year…”
Again, this is a direct connection killer.
It also import to refrain from resorting to our engineering approach of providing solutions when someone is frustrated, upset, sad, or angry. Instead, we need to come down from our head to our heart and our senses, and give the gift of our support and our presence. Most often, that just mean sitting next to him or her and saying:
- “This sucks. I know how much of a big deal this is for you. You did everything you could. I can feel your pain.”
We can also resort to simple construction to show empathy, even when we are facing a conflictive situation:
- “Are you feeling angry because I discarded your opinion in the meeting this morning? Did I fail to meet your need for recognition?”
This can help us connect in a kind and compassionate way. It doesn’t matter whether we accurately identify the feeling or the need behind it, as long as we show a genuine intent to connect on that level.
Improving our communication and EQ is not as easy as reading a blog post. This territory seems completely limitless to me, made of a myriad of skills of all sizes from learning to say “Thank you!” to public speaking. Each one complements the others and, as we practice them, make us well rounded communicators. And so, if you wish to become a speaker, a leader or simply a better spouse, parent or colleague, prepare yourself for a lifelong adventure of learning and enjoy the ride! There is no end goal here, it is about the journey toward the ideal. Only by understanding that we can never reach it, can we get closer to it.
PD: Thank you for reading this article, I am grateful for your time and consideration. In an attempt to learn, I would appreciate if you could tell me in the comments:
1. The one concept that most resonated with you
2. Any suggestions you may have to improve the content or the delivery