Having Empathy When You Are 100 Percent Right

Wed Feb 13, 2019 · 368 words

There are times, especially as an engineer that you are 100% correct, or at the very least, your plan is objectively better than the plan of someone else. It is in these moments that our true capacity for empathy is tested.

The thing is, engineers are not immune to forming irrational opinions, thoughts, desires, or code. If we can presume that the vast majority of professionals have positive intent when offering up their ideas and solutions, we can then, at the very least, safely assume the following:

  1. They believe they fully understand the problem, or at least to a sufficient degree in order to have an opinion.
  2. The solution they propose they believe (regardless of rationality) to be a viable one, perhaps even the best one.
  3. They are concerned that whatever idea they’ve propsed may turn out to be a failure once implemented.
  4. They want to be an effective member of the team, and want to see the project succeed.

As an individual contributor or people manager, it is important to keep the above in mind. When someone presents a view that you genuinely believe to be either inferior or even completely irrational, do not react with <insert negative emotion>. Instead, even for a moment, try to see what they see. Internalize the things they must believe in order for them to believe that their conclusions are viable, correct, and/or proper.

And then, once you’ve got the gist of where they are coming from, have a conversation. Become intentionally curious. Ask them to map it out so that you can better learn why they came up with their solution, so you can learn.

The tough part: do not correct their logic, their method, or anything at all, don’t even complete trains of thougths, literally just listen through completion. It’s incredibly difficult, but you will find a solid payoff over time. And when they do finish their explanation, attempt to give feedback exclusively through the use of non-leading questions. In some situations, they will find their flaws, in others, you will discover that perhaps you were the one that was seeing things incorrectly.

Even if you’re right, listening with empathy to those might be wrong will make everyone better.


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