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Practicing Empathy With Teams

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Empathy, as it’s been talked about recently, is most often framed as something important to practice for our users. It’s important to make sure we’re helping our users get the content they desire or get through the flow of our site to do what’s important to them.

What is getting lost, though, is that empathy is just as important for us to practice as we interact with our team members—all of us, developers, designers, writers, and project managers, can practice empathy as we work with our teammates. Empathy is just as much about our interactions with each other while we build our sites, as it is about how we treat our users.

As I’ve thought more about this, I’ve come up with a few ways to practice empathy with my teammates.

Remember shared goals

Designers want to build something just as great as I do, but they’re coming at it from a different angle. Spacing, margins, type-size tweaks—they all matter just as much as my clean markup and modular CSS. It’s easy to get annoyed at requests that don’t seem important, but instead, I actively remind myself that every part of a site is important.

Learn something new

To help me understand the perspective of designers, I’ve tried to learn more about design. Learning a bit about what the other folks on your team do and how they may come at the project can be eye opening. The time I’ve spent reading about design, content, JavaScript, and even learning a bit of Python, has helped me a lot. Recently, for example, I read Jason Santa Maria’s book, On Web Typography. I still have a lot more to learn about typography, but gaining a better understanding has helped me see how small changes in type can make a big difference. Even as we specialize in one particular field, it’s helpful to read up on other fields we work with. Instead of being annoyed at changes we’re asked to make, we can better understand the feedback. We’re all trying make things really sing as the final polish is put on.

Listen to each other

When I work with a new team, I start out by listening and observing the system they use to write code. Unless I’ve been brought in specifically to look at a process and make it better, I prefer to just watch, listen, and ask questions so that I can see where they’re coming from, learn the history, and understand why they do things the way they do.

With my current team, I waited a bit and then started asking questions about tools and processes. To my mind, one of the tools they use seemed outdated and a bit painful. But after observing a bit, and then asking about it, I found out their reasons for using it and they’ve changed my mind: I now see it’s the best fit for the team. Those first few weeks working with a new team can be stressful for everyone, but listening and observing for a while can cut down on the stress and friction.

Ask questions

When trying to be more empathetic with team members, I try to ask myself:

  • What is the other person’s point of view? Since we all come from different specialities, we have different things we think are important. The old cliché of walking in another’s shoes is applicable here.
  • How do my skills fit in with the group and what can I do to make it easier for everyone to understand my point of view? Can I document a process or explain my ideas in a less technical manner for those members that don’t have my expertise?
  • What’s the final goal of the project and how does each person contribute to that goal? If I understand that, then I can also understand how I fit into it and how my colleagues do as well.

We each have our own role on a team, so the questions you think about as you work with your team may be different, but being aware of these things is half the battle to reminding yourself that everyone doesn’t think the way that you do and that’s probably a good thing. Hopefully, it means you end up with a better completed project in the end.

These are just a few of the ways I’ve come up with lately to practice empathy with my team. It’s just as important as making sure we are empathetic to our users, and it makes working together easier and more fun. I’d love to hear more ideas on how you think about empathy within your teams too, so please share them in the comments.

About the Author

Susan Robertson

Susan Robertson is a front end developer working with Fictive Kin who focuses on CSS, style guides, responsive, and accessibility. In the past, she has worked with clients such as FiftyThree, Imprint, Cloud Four, and worked for Editorially, The Nerdery, and Cambia Health. When not actually writing code, she can be found writing about a wide variety of topics on her own site as well as contributing to A List Apart and The Pastry Box. When not staring at a screen, she reads comics and novels, cooks lots of yummy food, and enjoys her Portland neighborhood.

7 Reader Comments

  1. Susan, I really appreciate your article. Timeless for certain, but it comes at a time when my group is working to build bridges, improve workflow and explore ways to make our work-life better overall.

    The idea of consciously considering, not only the goal of the other disciplines, but the tools, is really important. Understanding what it takes to do _________________ gives me the opportunity to listen with smarter ears when questions come my way.

    I think change is especially hard where group-think or process or even plain ol’ laziness is the norm. Change can be slow, but so long as small changes are occurring, it’s progress!

    Communicating what the change is, why it is important and how it will affect each person is vital. Buy-in speeds progress.

    Great article, thanks!


  2. Hi Susan, thanks for posting this. I really found this relevant for our startup because it’s very much focused on providing a platform for users in the software engineer industry. As someone who’s on the other side, I realized the best way to improve is to become friends with our users. Though it’s a lot of work to keep up, I realized it’s so worth meeting them in person! I’ve met with a few who work locally and listening to what they do at their work started fruitful conversations.

    Empathy is so important and harder to maintain when we have so many alternatives to replace face to face conversations with tech.

    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  3. I appreciate so much what you are saying in this article. I’ve been working in my job to try to get my team to build empathy with our users. However, building empathy between co-workers has just remained an unstated thing and I think we can & should do more than that, to start paying attention to each other ALONG with our users. Thanks for the great guidelines to help me open a dialogue and try to get us to do better at that.

  4. I really appreciate your article. I do web design in Nelson, BC, where the mainstream is not the dominant culture. There are many non-violent communication groups and I often find myself wanting to bring in empathy and empathic communication into the workplace. Thanks for your suggestions.

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