The Surprising (and Non-Technical) Skill You Need to Succeed in Tech
Anyone who works in tech knows that integrating the right programming languages and using an agile development process are essential to getting a job done.
But the real key to navigating both the exhilaration and the exhaustion of working in the tech space is much more basic—and much more human.
Empathy, defined, is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” More simply put, it means being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes or to see the world through the eyes of someone else.
So what does that have to do with a technical field like software development?
Consider that, today, most programmers work in teams, which are often very diverse and span cities, time zones, or countries. A highly skilled team can almost always overcome technical challenges, but navigating interpersonal issues is much more tricky. This is where empathy comes in: Empathy enables people to communicate better with each other and to function more effectively as a team.
The good news is that empathy is a skill—one that can be developed through practice, time, and commitment. Here are a few activities I have found useful in building empathy and creating stronger teams.
1. Work on Self-Awareness
Self-awareness is the ability to notice your state of being and have a clear perception of your strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivation, and feelings. When you practice self-awareness, you learn to better understand your emotions, like anger, fear, self-criticism, or anything else that might hinder your ability to think clearly or collaborate with others.
Once you identify your emotions and what triggers them, you can practice ways to defuse the negative impacts on yourself and others. Anger, for instance, is often a “masking emotion” that might be covering up for another emotion like stress or fear or insecurity. Through practices like journaling and meditation, you can learn to recognize what makes you “angry” and address the underlying issue before you lose your cool or blow up on your co-workers.
Practicing self-awareness can also allow you to identify your inner critic, which can be a powerful, overwhelming voice that short-circuits learning and inhibits teamwork. In software development, you’re bound to make a code mistake or be faced with a challenge you can’t figure out on your own, but hiding out while you try, unsuccessfully, to solve the puzzle will only stress you out and slow the project down. When you understand your inner critic, though, you can recognize when you’re in “fear” mode and work on strategies to help you break out of those unproductive moments.
As Jason Guzik, a recent graduate of Dev Bootcamp, explains, “During my first couple of days at Dev Bootcamp, I didn’t want to appear to be the dumbest person in the room. So, I didn’t ask questions. When I [eventually] faced my fear of seeming ‘dumb’ and started asking questions, I found there wasn’t a single person who didn’t want to help me. Now when I see someone struggling, I will reciprocate and help them because I know what it felt like to be that state of mind and I don’t want anyone to feel that way.”
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2. Learn How to Give and Receive Feedback
When programmers write code, they collect feedback, make adjustments, test it, and write more code. They’re always in an iterative process, which allows them to be agile as they create software.
Think about applying this same methodology to how you work interpersonally. Yes, integrating real-time feedback is difficult—it’s easy to take criticism personally, beat yourself up about it, attack the giver, or dismiss it entirely. But instead of falling into these common traps, try to consider feedback, positive or negative, as a gift. (Here’s some advice on how.) When you integrate feedback, from both machines and humans, in a way that neutralizes defensive behavior and emphasizes value creation, you and your team can be much more effective.
Michael Abbott, a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Beyers and former Vice President of Engineering at Twitter, recently blogged about feedback and empathy. “During my time leading engineering and design on webOS, and later at Twitter,” he writes, “I’ve learned that empathy is core to a product team’s ability to move quickly from Design’s what, to Engineering’s how.” He claims that his team displayed a high degree of empathy to understand each other’s perspectives and to effectively integrate feedback, and a result was able to deliver an entirely new webOS in under a year. “Because of empathy,” he said, “We achieved a virtuous cycle of product design, the goal of every [tech] company.”
3. Practice Active Listening
“Active listening is much more than just hearing the content of a conversation, like the details of an alternative database design. It cultivates emotional understanding and personal connection,” says my colleague Brick Thornton, a software engineer and lead of Dev Bootcamp’s Engineering Empathy curriculum. “If a team member is disengaged because they feel their ideas are being ignored, active listening can help you delve more deeply into their communication and lead to an appropriate reaction. By hearing them out and bringing them back on board, you can avoid a conflict that brings the project to a standstill.”
Learning to be an active listener starts with being fully present in every conversation. To show that you’re present, try closing your laptop, shutting off the sound on your phone, and turning away from your monitor.
Active listening also means keeping quiet and giving space for others to speak. Whether you think you have a brilliant idea or you’re simply eager to please, expressing your ideas instead of listening to others could mean that you miss an important insight or valuable contribution. Programming attracts all types of people, including introverts, so using silence as a tool for active listening may give voice to those who might otherwise be too timid to speak up and contribute ideas.
When it is your time to speak, try paraphrasing what the speaker said to show that you listened and clarify what you might have misunderstood. We’ve all been in situations where we feel like we’re playing a game of telephone, and by making sure you’ve understood what was said, you’ll avoid running down the wrong project path. You’ll also earn trust among your co-workers and clients.
While talking about emotions may sound a little foreign to those who are trained to explore logic and objectivity, these three techniques are easy to put into practice. Empathy is the pathway to better communication, and the combination of logical and emotional skills is the key to more effective environments for all.