Articles, Blog

Leslie Hawthorn – Cultivating empathy at DevRelCon London 2018

November 5, 2019


♪ [music] ♪ – [Leslie] So, good morning, everyone.
It is a great pleasure to be back at DevRelCon London again this year.
This is one of my favorite 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. 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
favorite 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 favorite 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 practicing 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. 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.
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 onStar Trek: The Next Generationand 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 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 theNew York Timesabout 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. 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. Ay wallah.” So, by practicing active listening,
something very important happens to us and that is, we get out of broadcast mode.
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, practicing 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 favorite 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.
And then take the next step into, if I can understand 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 DevRel 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 Arc. 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. 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.
These are the 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 favorite example of this, and
particularly on the being explicit side is ThoughtWorks. Everybody heard of
ThoughtWorks? Okay. I see a lot of nodes. 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.
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 an 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 Whoopee 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. 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 calledDynamics
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 behavior 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 behavior 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?”
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 misstep.
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 multiuser 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. 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. ♪ [music] ♪

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