Human Skills: Empathy

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This Series: Human Skills

I recently hired a new developer for my team at Tailwinds, and during that process I focused on an interview that I referred to as the human skills interview. I’m not a fan of the “soft skills” concept, knowing that “soft skills” tend to be very hard indeed. Instead, I wanted to understand candidates from a holistic and complete perspective, including their skills with other people.

This human skills interview focused on many different aspects of what it means to be successful as a person within a small team, and one of the most important skills in any developer is the ability to empathize with others. This is important for several reasons: it’s key to understanding and working with team members, and also developing features that users will love. It’s also a skill that developers often struggle with.

What is empathy? Empathy is the ability of a person to perceive the perspective of another individual through their eyes. Where sympathy is the expression of pity, empathy is the full participation of one person in another person’s emotions and feelings. It’s the ability to come alongside another person and share the load.

There’s a saying at Facebook: “data wins arguments.” This may be technically true when your argument is data driven, but it doesn’t leave much room for empathy. Most arguments are not technical in nature in the first place; they involve a complex web of emotions and interpersonal feelings. Data doesn’t win these arguments, but it can sure entrench others in their positions, polarizing the debate.

An empathetic developer can bridge the divide between data and emotions. They use both to realize the perspective of the other party, and work to understand what a person feels in the moment and why they feel what they do. Being empathetic doesn’t mean that any one person will necessarily get what they want, but it is an essential ingredient in coming to a solution collaboratively, and one that everyone is likely to stick with moving forward.

I consider empathy to be chief amongst the skills that developers should possess when I interview them.

How do you develop a more empathetic outlook on life? It starts with working to see the other person’s perspective (or dialectical thinking, which we’ll cover in another post). But it goes beyond simply understanding their perspective; you have to actively feel what they are feeling. You do this by putting yourself in their shoes, literally working to understand their perspective as if it were your own. It takes practice, but you can deepen your relationship with empathy, and with other people.

This doesn’t mean that people ought to empathize to the point where their own feelings are ignored or simply don’t matter. Empathy is not about a person ignoring their own feelings; it’s about understanding the perspective of another person, and using that understanding to stand with them in their feelings, while still holding space for your own. In understanding another person’s emotions and feelings, you gain perspective on the whole picture, rather than only your part. Moving too far the other direction towards the other person distorts that whole picture, and is just as detrimental as not approaching a person with empathy.

Learning to walk with others is a hard task, but a worthwhile endeavor. Feeling the feelings of others can be painful and difficult, but it can be rewarding, too. Empathy is chief amongst human skills, and core to being better people overall.


Empathy: Why It Matters, And How to Get It 
The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill

Brandon Savage is the author of Mastering Object Oriented PHP and Practical Design Patterns in PHP

Posted on 12/2/2021 at 8:00 am
Categories: Business

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