Cultivating empathy

December 13, 2018

Author Matthew Revell

DevRelCon founder and CEO of Hoopy, the content agency for the developer economy.

Red Hat’s Leslie Hawthorn explains that empathy is an active choice for those of us running developer communities, in her talk from DevRelCon London 2018.


So, good morning, everyone. It is a great pleasure to be back at DevRelCon London again this year. This is one of my favourite conferences and one that I have decided that I’m never going to miss unlike the other ones where I told myself, “I’m never going to miss it,” but then don’t get to go because we all have busy schedules. I’m sure you can relate.

A practical guide to empathy

So, the purpose of this talk today is to talk about the importance of empathy and also some practical ways in which we can cultivate empathy within ourselves and our communities because one of my least favourite things is going to a presentation where we hear about how important it is to do a particular thing, but we are given no concrete guidance in how to do it.

This is also one of my favourite presentations to give because when I am in a situation that frustrates me or makes me feel disappointed, I respond to it by writing a talk about how we could all do it better. So, if anyone would like to go back and research my previous DevRel exploits and figure out when I first give this talk, we can then discuss the results over beer later.

So, why empathy matters. To a certain extent, I feel a little bit strange having this discussion with a group full of folks who are Developer Relations professionals because I think that practising empathy is what we do as our job every day and it just so happens that we practice empathy in the area of software development, user experience, and making sure that our community members have an excellent onboarding and journey through participation in the structures that we’re building.

An environment of psychological safety

So, it seems that a little bit counterintuitive to talk about why empathy matters in a room full of individuals who practice this on a daily basis as part of our profession. But I do think that it is important to understand the baseline of realizing that empathy, to me, is actually the instantiation of creating that environment of psychological safety.

That research from very large organizations like Google, where I used to work, did deep research studies to understand what made teams and groups of people working together successful. And the answer was simply put, that people felt like they had the space to be themselves, to be creative, to be experimentive, and in an environment where people were not going to take away that sense of freedom by making them feel shame or self-conscious, etc.

And this is where empathy really comes into play, right? The creation of that environment of psychological safety because we are all invested in understanding what one another needs. So, it’s about you too. I’m going to talk a lot about the importance of your interactions with other people, how you can cultivate empathy in order to create positive outcomes in your community.

Deanna Troi and the personal benefits of empathy

But I also just want to emphasize that cultivating empathy as a skill is just as much about you as a person and the benefits that it will bring to your life as it is about the audience that you’re trying to reach. I originally started giving this presentation to groups of free software developers who may have less skill in this regard than the folks in this room. And so it was very important to remind them that there are personal benefits to having a great deal of empathy.

People who have great empathy are better negotiators, they’re able to create compromises in situations where not all parties can have what they want, but everyone gets a little bit of what they want. And again, those kinds of people have the skillset that call them to do great jobs like being DevRel professionals. So, first and foremost, how many people here feel like they play Deanna Troi in their communities?

How many people here are not old enough to know who Deanna Troi is? Awesomesauce. So, Deanna Troi was a character on Star Trek: The Next Generation and she played a character whose alien species was particularly adept at empathy.

So, I do feel like I play Deanna Troi on TV. So, I think that the key upshot here is Deanna Troi, because of her nature was empathic, right? And I think that we tend to separate ourselves into buckets of like, “Oh, well, that person is just born particularly good at math, or this person is just born particularly good at football, or this person is just particularly empathetic by their nature,” and that’s simply not true.

Empathy is an active choice

Empathy is actually a choice that we make every day in our interactions whether or not we have spent time trying to hone that skill or not. So, some research that was published in the New York Times about four years ago proved that individuals, and there was a sufficient sample size and all that other stuff that you nerds are now thinking about because I did too, that proved that people would, reductively speaking, would choose not to exercise empathy if they were in a situation that they felt would make them uncomfortable and their sense of empathy would be invoked.

So, if the study participants were given a choice of a longer route to get their morning cup of coffee, which might even make them late, but they didn’t have to pass an un-housed person on the street, they would choose the longer route. So, if we can choose not to invoke empathy, we can clearly choose to invoke it. Conversely, the next aspect of the study explored if people could be encouraged to feel empathy rather than to avoid it.

And once people were told that empathy is not an innate skill, it’s something that they can activate, that they can cultivate, that they can pursue, they went out of their way to try to exercise empathy in the following scenarios that they experimented with. So, if you are a people person and someone who is not an extrovert, but plays one on stage, that would be me, empathy is something that we can activate through cultivation practice and fabulous tips coming soon.

So, we just talked a lot about how it’s not an innate skill, but if you’re one of those folks in the audience who is not actually here because this I’m sure is a very empathetic group of people, but in the case that you are dealing with folks who may wish to cultivate their empathy, one of the ways that you can take active steps to do that in a way that’s really non-threatening is to just know yourself, right?

You cannot be able to exercise compassion and understanding for the impact of a situation on other people unless you can understand first how that would feel to you, right? You really have to take the time to enter your own mind, your own body, your own spirit, and your own thought process to understand how things may be received by other people.

Top tip: practice active listening

So, I do this with a bullet journal. There are many different tactics for kind of that introspection and self-awareness. But if you are going through the journey of trying to help other people be more empathetic and be more aware, writing things down is excellent because it helps to target the mind-body connection, and also your journal is not going to judge you.

I suggest not practicing how to be empathetic on social media. They’re not very empathetic. So, rational tip number one, practice active listening. Does anyone in the audience have a definition of active listening that we can use? I mean, I have mine, but this is the audience participation section. Excellent.

Well, I will leave everyone to get another cup of coffee and I will go ahead and define active listening. So, active listening is the process… It’s a communication technique and it calls upon us to listen to what the other person is saying, concentrate, respond and remember.

So, active listening is not what we’ve probably typically think of as active listening, which is, someone says something to you, “Dr. Black, would you like to get Thai food later?” “Yes, please.” “Excellent. So, we’re going to get Thai food. Thank you.” So, that’s not actually active listening, right? That’s repeating back to someone what they’ve just said. That’s a technique that’s called mirroring and it’s incredibly effective for communication. But the key with active listening is that it’s not simply about words, it’s also about observing body language.

It’s about keeping track of what the person has said to you and paraphrasing what they have said to you in a way that shows that you have understood, that you have retained and that you will take action upon what they’ve said. So, “Sounds great. Looks like you’re hungry, let’s go ahead and get Thai. And lunch is at noon, so we’re going to have to wait a few minutes. So I’ll come and get you. Et voila!” So, by practicing active listening, something very important happens to us and that is, we get out of broadcast mode.

How reading fiction cultivates empathy

I would like to thank Erin McKean for her excellent talk at DevXcon in May where she very gently and very kindly and empathetically pointed out to us that as developer evangelist, we are often in transmit mode, right? Get my stuff, download my SDK, join our forum, etc., etc., etc., Because we want to give something of value to people, right?

We don’t do this job for just the funzies. We want to make sure that our audience is well served. But sometimes it’s really hard to get out of, “I am talking to you. I am talking to you. I am talking to you” mode, right? So, practising active listening allows us to have a set of concrete tools to get out of broadcast mode and into listen mode and then into receptivity mode so that we’re actually able to understand what our audience needs from us beyond the value that we’re already trying to provide to them.

This one is my favourite tool because I like to read books. Turns out that reading is very good for you, and specifically reading fiction. So, if you are one of those folks like me who tends to be very task-oriented and needs to take a break, remind yourself that reading fiction is part of your professional success and stop by the WHSmith in the airport on your way out of town.

So, the process of reading fiction is key to the cultivation of empathy because of the way it activates our brains to think about the scenario that we’re receiving on the page, right? We’re able to imagine what the characters are going through. We are able to see their reactions and to either internalize those reactions as a potential outcome from our interactions or just play with the ideas of why this particular person is reacting in this particular way.

Right? And it’s also a sort of an initial step to doing thought exercises around empathy and perspective building and audience understanding in a way that’s approachable to anyone, right? We can… Well, I shouldn’t say anyone, but many people can pick up a book and read it and be immersed in that immediate environment and find that very compelling.

Be curious and avoid assumptions

And then take the next step into, if I can understand this, this artificial world that’s created here and how the parameters operate within, I can take that out into my interactions with squishy human problems. So, be curious and avoid assumptions. How many of us have learned through our career as dev rel professionals that we thought we knew exactly why our customers wanted to use our product and why developers wanted to use our product and we had no clue why they were engaged?

Okay. I see about half the hands go up. So, it is important to have a framework and a set of reasons why we think that what we’re doing is useful and have a decision criteria for what we’re going to say to people, but we cannot assume that we actually understand what anyone else’s approach actually is.

And in fact, assumptions are actually evil, to quote my dear friend, Laura Eck. When we make assumptions, we are shutting down and narrowing the trajectory of dialogue along the premises that we’ve approached the problem with, right? And if we don’t leave ourselves the ability to ask open-ended questions, be curious about what people really want and not just look for the solution or answer that we think is the correct one, then we’re not actually going to be able to effectively reach out to anybody. So, again, ask lots of questions. Again, get out of broadcast mode, don’t make assumptions, and that will be a much more effective approach.

Marketing versus dev rel: attention versus approval

Be explicit and inclusive in your values. So, I think that this is something where the developer relations profession is in a very interesting position vis-a-vis other types of community activities or some of the departments that we may find ourselves in or liaising with at our companies, right? So, how many people are tired of the developer relations is not marketing talk? I want to see every hand up. I hope that’s how you feel. So, I think one of the reasons why we have that debate is traditional marketing focuses on what I like to think of as the attention economy, right?

Getting somebody to actually pay enough attention to know that your stuff exists, right? Whereas I think that the developer relations profession focuses on the approval economy, right, creating a space, a product, an area to gather knowledge that makes people feel good about being there, that people who look at them and see that they are a participant in this area will approve of the choices that they’ve made, right?

And I think that the key strengths that we have in taking that different approach is that we’re able to be an effective advocate for the values of our software and the values of our company out in the real world, so it’s not just yet another SDK, yet another forum, yet another tool. It’s this is something that is being created for you by a group of people who also care about these things, and because they’re people who share your values, ostensibly, then you are more likely to want to interact and engage with that community.

My favourite example of this, and particularly on the being explicit side is ThoughtWorks. Everybody heard of ThoughtWorks? Okay. I see a lot of nods. So, ThoughtWorks actually has a page on their website that says that one of the company’s values is social justice. And they go into detail about the ways in which they provide programs for their employees to use work time to engage in social justice projects.

They define which areas they consider to be important in their pursuit of social justice, so global literacy, etc. There’s four or five different areas where they want to concentrate their company’s resources. And they very clearly call out that they will also provide pro-bono services where possible to organizations, nonprofits, non-governmental organizations who are working in these spaces of social justice to promote their mission and to give them benefit.

Who doesn’t want to work with a company that does that, right? Like, who doesn’t want to be engaged with a group of people who recognizes that it’s not just about what we’re doing in our day to day work, it’s also about how that day to day work can be positively impactful in the wider world. This is key.

No HiPPOing please

Discouraging HiPPOing. Does anyone know what HiPPOing is? Okay. Fortunately, this is not me showing my age. This is me showing my arcane acronym more. So, HiPPOing is the highest paid person’s opinion is the only one that matters. And I actually had excellent feedback on this idea out of previous presentation, which was, it shouldn’t also be that the highest prestige person’s opinion is the only one that matters.

So, if you are engaged in a group dialogue, if you’re in a team dynamic setting, and within your community. Obviously, as a developer relations professional, part of your responsibility is to ensure a useful and effective dialogue. But your community is not healthy if everyone looks to you to be the arbiter of what is good, what is bad exclusively, there needs to be norms that are enforced because everyone is empowered to enforce them and you need to be in a position where you’re able to empower others within your community and organization to do the good work that you are doing as well because that’s how we all learn and grow.

And I also want to give a shoutout to Matthew because in working with him on Hoopy and DevRelCon and other projects like the Community Devroom at FOSDEM. He’s always been really clear that one of the things that he doesn’t want to see happen to developer relationship as a profession is that we start worshipping particular rock stars, right?

That we understand that there are some of us within the tribe who may have greater knowledge or who may have additional resources or things that they can teach us but that we never put anyone on a pedestal and begin to worship them because they are the person. And I haven’t seen that really in the DevRel community and I just want to tell you all how grateful I am that that’s not how I see us operating because I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I just feel like it leads to a lot of toxicity and people sending out notes saying that they are taking a break from Linux.

We all make mistakes

So, don’t flip the bozo bit. Anyone familiar with the phrase “Don’t flip the bozo bit?” Okay. Thank you, Lorna Jane. So, this is actually from an excellent book on software development called “Dynamics of Software Development” that was published in 1995 and still has actually useful relevant information in it today.

And the upshot of “Don’t flip the bozo bit” was the encouragement by the author to realize that everyone has a bad day, everyone makes mistakes. Some mistakes are worse than others. But when you’re doing your interactions with an individual person, you need to not assume that if they have made a mistake, that they are forever persona non-grata.

Right? And effectively the situation he was recounting was how a programmer would be in a meeting and he would make a suggestion and everyone would turn around and say, “Well, that was ridiculous. I can’t believe that you would have suggested something so stupid. Well, we’re not going to do that obviously.” And then every future suggestion or interaction was met with being pushed aside, being ignored, not being respected because that bozo bit had been flipped.

So, I’m not suggesting that we tolerate bad behaviour in our communities at all, but I am suggesting that if we want to cultivate that environment of psychological safety, we need to make room for people to make mistakes. And we need to make room for people to make mistakes and promise them that we will try to help them understand why we thought their behaviour was a mistake and how they can do it better next time.

And I know that as a white woman who grew up in a place with really good schools and I am heterosexual and I fit all the normal paradigms, I’m going to make a lot of mistakes when I interact with other people. And I want to be in an environment of psychological safety where people can tell me, “That was not your most shining moment,” and then I can go, “Excellent, I would like to shine. What do we do next?”

Make it genuinely okay to fail

And last but not least, make it truly okay to fail. How many of you folks in the audience have worked in companies where they tell you, “We encourage experimenting. We encourage innovation. It’s totally okay to make mistakes. Some of our best ideas come from failed experiments?” How many people have heard that? Keep your hand raised if it was true. There’s like five hands left up.

So, make it really okay to fail. And also when you’re interacting with other people, just be mindful of the fact that clearly many of us in the audience have been conditioned to believe that when someone says, “It’s okay to fail,” that that is absolutely untrue, that there will be consequences for our failure.

And by making it okay to fail, again, we create that environment of psychological safety and that place for people to experiment and to do and try new things that frighten them, that stretch them, that help them to grow and change and evolve because they know there are no negative consequences to taking a mis-step.

My two asks

And last but not least, I started this presentation by telling you that empathy is about you too. And I have two very important ask for this audience. If you would like to participate in my social experiment to grow empathy throughout the world. One is, over the weekend, I was keynoting an event called freenode #live. And freenode #live is the gathering of developers for and users of the freenode network and folks who are working on like IRCv3 and so some old school hotness.

And we had a big moment of meeting of the minds as you do in a restaurant where we talked about, how is it that we can start appealing to the younger generation and the folks who are not aware of a time in which open source software was not ubiquitous?

And where there was a challenge to convince the world that principles of open development, open community, collaboration over competition and co-opetition being truly possible. Like, how can we reach out to those folks and understand what they want so that we can talk to them about why we think it is important that we have systems that honor user freedom for chat. And using protocols that have been durable for decades as opposed to other chat services where we feel like there’s a chance for those dialogues to be ephemeral and lost to the ages.

So, if you are one of those people who either knows how to use emojis properly or who… I’m talking about the children because I don’t know how to use emojis properly. So, if you know how to use emojis properly or you are interested in having that kind of dialogue about what it would take to bring technology that has proven to support multi-user freedom and bring that into the modern era so more people are interested in using it, please, please do let me know, and please, please do come to events like freenode #live. We need your input.

You can be the change

And the other, which I think is honestly vastly more important, we live in a very divided world. And we live in a world where people are not receiving the care that they need to survive. And I know that every single person in this room has the skills to create and cultivate community.

And I love spending time with you at these conferences and I love the dialogues we have. But I don’t need us to talk to each other. I need us to go out into the streets of our towns. I need us to go and work with the people in our local communities who want to effect positive change but don’t know how because they don’t know about the kinds of tools we have.

They don’t know about doing social organizing. They just understand that something needs to change. And please make yourself available to those people. Please help strengthen what they are trying to do because at the end of it, it doesn’t matter how many people are using our software products if we do not affect positive change to improve our world both for its human inhabitants, all of its other inhabitants, and just our future generations, right?

So, personally, again, giving real examples, there’s a community in my little town right outside of Hamburg, Germany, where they do food sharing, so they pick up food that is too ugly for sale. So, I make an effort to pick that up, prepare soup or other foodstuffs and deliver it to senior citizens in my community because folks who don’t share my political beliefs try to strife my community by saying that migrants are the reason that old people in my town are living in poverty.

So, I want to stand in testament to the fact that that is not true. And I don’t want this to be a poli…Thank you. Thank you. I’m not trying to stand up here and be inherently political. I have no judgments about folks’ beliefs, though I have strongly held opinions of my own, but I just want to encourage us, the skills we have in this room are so valuable beyond what we do for our employers and I just personally feel that we have a duty particularly at this troubled time to share those skills with everyone so that we can just make things better for other people.

And that my friends are all of my remarks. I want to thank you very much for coming.

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