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InfoQ Homepage Articles A Five-step Guide to Building Empathy That Can Boost Your Development Career

A Five-step Guide to Building Empathy That Can Boost Your Development Career


Key Takeaways

  • Empathy is one of the most important skills required of employees for 2020 and beyond
  • Empathy can help developers work better and understand the end-users they're building for
  • Communication is the core of empathy—learning to communicate better is how we activate it
  • The 5 steps to becoming a better communicator are 1. Understand yourself, 2. Understand them, 3. Build comfort into conversations, 4. Learn how to listen, 5. Practice
  • By following some simple tips for activating each step you can enhance your own productivity and career path, while improving team dynamics and throughput


Empathy: it’s a trait we all THINK we have. We’re not heartless - we feel for others when they’re having a hard time. We understand; we sympathize. But when it comes down to it, very few of us truly understand empathy or how to leverage its power in our everyday lives.

While empathy has always been a virtue in personal relationships, it’s quickly becoming a critical skill in the business world. However, it still isn’t widely adopted in the software development realm, remaining something of a "mystic" concept. Over the last few decades, however, the notion that empathy cannot co-exist with critical thinking has been slowly diminishing - but not fast enough to have a widespread impact within our industry. The responsibility lies within each of us to understand what empathy really means and start building it into our professional practices.

So why should software developers care about empathy? What’s in it for you? And most importantly, how do you cultivate it?

Empathy is a Top 6 trending skill

According to Forbes research, empathy (synonymous with Emotional Intelligence) is one of the most important skills required of employees in 2020 and beyond. The other five skills are complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, and coordination with others.

Software developers already have a leg up on problem solving and critical thinking: Empathy can help us round out our top-skills sets. It can also make our jobs much easier. Empathy helps you:

  • Better understand the needs of your customers or end-users
  • Treat the people you care about the way you would like to be treated
  • Convince others of your point of view
  • Motivate others and be one step ahead of their actions/reactions

If empathy has so many benefits and is so integral to communication, why is it still taboo in the professional world? One reason is that professional settings are typically a melting pot of cultures, backgrounds, temperaments, and other things we aren’t used to dealing with in our own social settings. Another is reluctance: People fear that they will be unheard and disrespected or considered weak if emotions come into play in a professional setting.

So how do I cultivate empathy?

The best way to address this is through a problem-solving approach, which most software developers are already familiar with.

The five steps to cultivating empathy are:

  1. Understand yourself
  2. Understand them
  3. Build comfort into conversations
  4. Learn how to listen
  5. Practice

1. Understand Yourself

Socrates nailed it early on: "Know thyself." Reflecting on and identifying your behaviors and how you show up (especially as your work-self) is critical to understanding how others perceive you. What are your strengths, your weaknesses, your hidden talents or blind spots? What are your cognitive skills? Your emotional tone and style? What about technical and job-related skills?

This self-knowledge has to be as it relates just to you. But you must also compare this self-evaluation to others, such as the people you work with or the peers you’re competing with for jobs/promotions. Sometimes, your self-view doesn’t totally jive with how others see you. Self-awareness should always include information about how you are seen - your self-view alone will not help you be successful.

When you reflect on yourself, also analyze your interactions. When you speak, do you ramble on? Do you raise your voice easily, or get easily upset? Do you talk more than listen? How do you come across physically? Do you roll your eyes, or dart them around the room? Do you slouch or bury your hands in your pockets?

Think about the language you use during conversations. Do you use habitual phrases that help or hinder your message? Is your language helping others to pay attention or tune you out? Does it encourage conversations and build bridges? Are you making others feel heard and respected, or ignored and underappreciated?

To start your self-awareness journey, you can take advantage of a number of tools: DISC, Real Colors, and Myers-Briggs are all great starting points to understanding your own personality. These tools are not there to dictate who you are, but to guide you in understanding who you are.

When you take the quiz, you are essentially having a conversation with that quiz. The results are simply telling you how you showed up to that conversation - the outcome is affected by your mood, attitude, energy, recent events, etc.

Use the information from these tools to begin understanding how others may perceive you. You should also look at the information they share about other personality types so that you can get a headstart on understanding others.

You choose who you want to be and how others see you. By understanding yourself, you become more aware, and when you become aware, you can enact change. Use the information you’ve gained about yourself to shape the rough edges of your personality.

Tackle the simple things first, like managing the "ohs, ums" and other verbal tics. Then expand your control to your emotional and physical responses and see how it affects your presence in professional conversations - you may find yourself commanding more attention and more respect!

2. Understand Them

There are three types of empathy: Cognitive, Emotional, and Compassionate. Working on all of these, together, can vastly transform your interactions with clients, with managers, and with peers.

Cognitive empathy is when you simply know what other people are feeling and thinking. This type of empathy is more focused on your thoughts than emotions. For example, you understand happiness but it's not the same as feeling happy. If one of your coworkers gets a raise, then you understand that they will be happy, even if you don’t feel happy yourself.

This type of empathy is extremely important when it comes to "getting inside of their head" and communicating with thoughtfulness. Cognitive empathy can be a powerful tool when you’re mediating a group or handling a risky negotiation.

Emotional empathy is when you physically react to the other person’s feelings, or actually feel what they are feeling. For example, if someone you deeply care about shows up in tears, you might find yourself also feeling sad even if they haven’t said a word. This emotional response comes naturally to some, but for others it must be learned and practiced.

Mirror neurons play an important role in emotional empathy. These neurons are thought to be responsible for our "gut" reactions and are important for understanding actions as well as intentions. For example, if someone is running at you, your mirror neurons help you determine if they are coming to harm you or help you and to respond accordingly.

Emotional empathy is important for intrapersonal relationships like coaching, mentorship, and management. In these types of relations, lacking an emotional response during emotionally loaded situations can make you seem cold and distant. A mirror response, on the other hand, can earn you the other person’s respect and trust.

Emotional empathy may be the hardest to cultivate in a professional setting, but it also can help you build strong relationships and solid teams that are critical to both individual and collective success.

Compassionate empathy strikes a powerful balance between cognitive and emotional empathy. It’s when we are aware of another person’s emotional state and feel their feelings with them. However, the additional ingredient is action - using your dual understanding to create a positive impact.

For example, imagine a scenario in which a coworker is struggling with a tough assignment: You understand that they are frustrated and feel their frustration in yourself. Instead of reacting in a pure cognitive or emotional way, consider instead what would help them. Do they need a genuine compliment to boost morale? Or maybe they could use a second set of eyes on the problem? Balance your cognitive and emotional empathy to respond to the situation in a logical but caring way.

3. Build Comfort into Conversations

The way we look, feel, and act will impact any conversation - for better or worse. We learned earlier about mirror neurons and how they affect us. Guess what? Our conversation partners have mirror neurons impacting them as well. Instead of allowing these neurons to become a detriment to our interactions, we will instead purposefully influence them in a positive way.

The first experience in any conversation are the sights and smells, and consequently these are the easiest variables to control. It sounds simple, but don’t distract people by having cake in your hair or forgetting to put on pants (it’s quarantine; it happens). Projecting an image that puts people at ease will set the stage for a smooth interaction.

Also, learn how to open up your body language. Good posture exudes professionalism and confidence and can help your words make a greater impact. Ever heard the phrase "mimicry is the best form of flattery"? This works in conversations: Attempting to emulate or reflect the other person’s positive body language cues not only boosts your image but endears them to you.

Another challenge is to get out of your head and move your focus completely to them. Try to stop thinking about how nervous or anxious you are: Your body language will reflect that. In turn, their mirror neurons will fire and they will begin to subconsciously emulate your emotional state.

In order for people to warm up to you, you need to be warm to them first! You can start by finding something you genuinely admire about them. Maybe something you quickly identify: How they look, how they’re dressed, or their cool laptop bag. Your body language will transmit this positive sentiment and your conversation partner will subconsciously mirror that!

It’s also important to avoid the dreaded conversational lull. Research shows that it takes as little as four seconds of awkward silence for anxiety to spike. You’ll want to have a few backup topics ready to go: current events, entertainment, sports, podcasts, etc. (avoid controversial topics, of course). Or simply ask them about themselves: It’s the one topic that they are guaranteed to know a lot about!

4. Learn How to Listen

Otto Scharmer and his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed their four levels of listening model in the mid-2000s while observing individuals interacting at the organizational level. He postulated that many failures at work can be attributed to a lack of listening, and therefore a lack of understanding of the situation at hand.

Before we discuss Otto Scharmer’s four levels of listening, let's look at an even lower level of listening (level zero, we’ll say) called Cosmetic Listening.  You may be looking at someone, nodding, smiling, etc. but your focus and attention are elsewhere. You’re pretending to listen and may occasionally mumble out conversational cues like "yeah," "uh-huh," "I know, right?" Our modern world is flooded with distractions, which makes it easier to regress to cosmetic listening. This is the worst form of "listening" and should be avoided at all costs.

Here are Scharmer’s other levels, in order of least to most desirable:

Downloading is our habitual form of listening. When someone is communicating information to you that you are already familiar with, you only listen to reconfirm your established judgements or what you already know. When you’re downloading, you’re simply selectively gathering facts and hearing what you want to hear. This is considered passive listening: You’re being talked at, not talking with.

Factual listening is the second level, where you’re listening in order to respond. You’re generally trying to be attentive so you can pick out talking points to acknowledge or debunk. This is a form of active listening: You absorb the message, reflect on it, and mimic or rephrase their comments in your own words to confirm that you’ve understood. The "reflect on it" stage is the critical distinction between passive and active listening. By reflecting on and confirming their message, you build the foundation for clarity and increase the likelihood of understanding.

Empathic listening is a deeper level of listening where you begin to operate beyond the boundaries of your own mental or cognitive organization. Your own perception shifts and you now consider not only the facts and figures of a conversation, but the story of the human being you’re speaking with. By considering where a speaker is coming from you begin understanding the context of the facts they’re giving you.

Empathic listening puts understanding into practice: You give them your undivided attention and avoid building counter arguments in your head or waiting to jump in with your own retort. You slow down, giving the other person a beat to think. You can use short lulls as a tool: Often, you’ll get more unexpected information from what comes after the silence. Finally, you’ll want to defer all judgement and remove any personal assumptions that may skew the message. You’re not here to judge, you’re here to learn.

Mastering empathic listening will make you a much better communicator. However, there is an even higher level of listening that you should strive for:

With Generative listening, you may ask about certain things because they are interesting, but we also begin to care and fit the pieces together. Scharmer describes this type of listening as "Connecting to the emerging future - to a future possibility that links to your emerging self; to who you really are."

This form of listening is driven by curiosity, genuine interest, and authenticity. You’re moved beyond sharing a conversation and are now sharing an experience. You begin to form insights, find pathways to the future, and get excited about them! When you operate at this level, you can build a far broader strategic perspective and gain a far greater awareness of individuals, situations, and specific points of view.

As a developer, this listening skill breeds leadership qualities that can help you excel in your role, endear you to others, and reveal opportunities to grow.

5. Practice

Every interaction is an opportunity to practice your newly understood empathy. You should be conscious of how you show up to every conversation, whether it's with a coworker, family member, or friend. Seize opportunities to engage with the not-so-obvious candidates like grocery store clerks and delivery drivers. Challenge yourself to discover as much as you can about new people you meet in passing. How much of it can you remember in case you ever see them again?

As a specific example of putting these principles into practice, consider interacting with door-to-door solicitors. They are a perfect opportunity to practice communication skills. From the beginning, you know exactly what their motivation is, they are eager to talk to you for as long as you’ll let them, and you can control their excitement and mood easily based on your own responses and body language. Since they’re doing all the work, you can think of it as communication in easy mode. Just remember to politely decline their offer - unless you really want another set of solar cells on your roof.

You can also practice your empathic communication skills in writing. Before you craft an email, put yourself into the reader’s place: What do they really want from you? What is the best response to elicit what you want from them? Building empathy into your communications should create mutual value.

Developing a Better You

Empathy isn’t just a nice-to-have soft skill, it’s a vital part of our existence -even for the most stereotypically introverted engineer! Opportunities to practice present themselves everywhere: Look for them and use them to build your skills so that they become second nature. You will find yourself building more meaningful connections to people and enjoying more rewarding relationships with others. And why wouldn’t those things be important on the job? It’s good for your own productivity and career path, but empathy also vastly improves team dynamics and throughput. In a time when we need to be thinking more about the collective good, empathy is our most powerful tool. Understand it, practice it, use it. It’ll make you a better developer - and perhaps even a better person!

About the Authors

Ryan Thomas is Director of Engineering, Headspring. Thomas is a consummate developer who is equally skilled at building relationships, bridging gaps, and coaching colleagues in the arts of coding and communication. He has 20+ years’ experience managing complex, diverse business systems and leading project teams. As Headspring’s Director of Engineering, he helps shape the business’s vision and mission while mapping the growth paths of his individual team members. Ryan is an asset across functions - from Sales to Marketing to Talent - known for generating value-driven conversations at all levels of an organization. His success is rooted in a patient approach to both people and problem-solving, paired with a carefully-developed EQ.

Vasudha Prabhala is Senior Vice President of Service Delivery, Headspring. Prabhala manages the successful delivery of client engagements across all geographies and offices. Her expertise lies in engaging people, delivering technology-enabled solutions, and securing tangible results. She brings more than 18 years’ experience helping clients worldwide transform their organizations through software. She’s worked across multiple industries and has developed deep insight into various business models. With a Master’s degree in Computer Science as well as an MBA from the University of Texas, Austin, Prabhala has paved a steady path in the industry - from creating custom software to product management and consulting to leading an entire delivery organization. Her passion for supporting fellow women in tech drives her to write and speak on the subject, most recently with Women Who Code. At the top of her current agenda is continuing to shape Headspring’s reputation as a high-profile technology consulting firm that solves complex problems for their partners and delivers maximum value to all stakeholders.

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