Creating Cultures of Empathy

December 11, 2018 9:30 AM

SVA Theatre

The same general trajectory: a decent idea executed flawlessly by a cohesive team of hard workers. No matter the project, everything can be achieved following this general guideline. But the exact thing that can create global companies, solve impossible problems and bring ideas to life is also the same reason why so many companies fail. That *thing* is us. People. And when we’re at our best, there isn’t anything we can't do. So how do we optimize collaboration? How do we work better together even if we don’t see eye-to-eye with everyone on our teams? And how do we create a culture of empathy when all we can see about everyone around us is our differences?

This talk will explore empathy in an unusual way: from the perspective of a stutterer. We’ll examine what empathy truly is (and is not) and reveal the specific actions individuals must engage in daily to create a culture of empathy on their team.

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Unedited Live Transcript



Nathan Curtis:

The first talk, and I’m really excited to get us going, is creating cultures of empathy by Sharon Steed. She’s an international keynote speaker. She’s a an empathy consultant and she helps people change how they think by teaching the principles of empathy. So if you could join me in a warm round of applause, let’s welcome Sharon Steed.

applause

Sharon Steed:

I am a person who stutters. I am also a sister, a daughter, a friend, a partner, a speaker, a female. However, being a stutterer has been the most defining characteristic of my entire life. And, you know, it’s not the physical act of stuttering that’s been so encompassing for me. It’s how stuttering makes me feel. I feel incredibly ashamed, because I don’t sound like other people. I feel insecure because I’m constantly considering the kinds of things I can and cannot say. And I also feel incredibly powerless because I feel like I can’t present myself in the capacity that really shows who I am as a person. However, there have been a couple of really good things about stuttering. It has taught me, you know, how to be a better communicator in a lot of ways. And it is also forced me to be very adaptable to change. And so you know, these two things, communication and being adaptable to change have one big concept in common. And that concept is empathy. And that’s the reason why I’m here to speak to you guys today.

So this is me. I’m around three years old. I know. I’m adorable.

laughter

Sharon:

And this is around the age that my parents told me that I began to stutter. But you know, like being a stutterer, as a toddler, like that’s a pretty sort of common thing. A lot of kids who are you know like around this age have some sort of speech impediment. But you know a lot of them just kind of outgrow it by the time they hit five or six. As you can tell I am not five or six, and so this is just a thing that you know I’ve had to learn how to deal with. And so as a stutterer you kind of figure out how to cope in ways that are not always the healthiest ways. So you, well me personally, I use a lot of filler words and I know it sounds really smart, but it is what it is. I’m also like constantly trying to change words. And then like I kind of came to a point where, you know, I just decided that like I didn’t want to talk to people. And so you know, I kind of took myself out of situations where I was going to have to sort of carry a conversation. I became incredibly insecure. However stuttering did teach me how to approach communication in a way that fosters a really strong connection, right? I became an incredibly active listener. So I was constantly posing questions to people. I was giving them the stage. And so you know, I became a very strong communicator in that sense. And then the times like I did have to speak, I learned how to really, you know, change course incredibly quickly, right?

Like a lot of stutterers, like we kind of have sounds and words that we, you know, aren’t confident saying. And so in the course of a conversation, I’m constantly thinking four, five, six or seven words ahead. How can I say something better. How can I be fluent.

So you know, after spending all of these years sort of focusing on paying attention to people and being very insecure, I kind of developed a process of, you know, just not talking as much. Like I wouldn’t put myself in situations where, you know, again, I was going to have to you know, carry a conversation. Right? And so after all of these years of being so afraid and so insecure, I decided it was time to face this fear. And so about five years ago I pursued public speaking. So I gave my first talk on stuttering, and then after that I gave a bunch of other talks on communication and marketing and things like that. And so people would, you know, come up to me and say hey, you know, I really loved how you talked about empathy. So I thought I was very curious because I never actually talked about empathy in any of those talks. However, like that’s the message that people received. So I decided to embrace it. So now I have to call myself something because I’m up here on stage. So I call myself an empathy consultant. I give talks that are based around communicating with empathy. I have a course on Linked In of the same title, communicating with empathy, and I also give talks at companies and conferences on communication, collaboration and empathy on teams at work. And so let’s get to talking about the reason why I’m here. Let’s talk
about empathy.

So empathy in corporate settings is incredibly important because you know, it’s going to help companies essentially just make more money. Right? How do I know this? A couple of stats. I promise this part is going to be over very soon. This is not fun at all to talk about numbers. 92% of employees believe that empathy is under valued in their companies, and 90% of employees would be willing to stay at a company a little bit longer, if that company empathized with their needs. So what do these numbers mean? They mean that empathy is going help companies retain top talent.

A couple of other numbers. 87% of CEOs feel that a company’s financial performance is tied to empathy in the office and 80% of employees are going to be willing to work longer hours for an empathetic employer. So what do these numbers mean? They mean that empathy is going to make managers and leaders a lot more effective at their jobs. A lot of times people kind of consider these softer skills, things that aren’t as valuable in corporate settings. However, the softer skills are the ones that are going to stay with you forever and ever.

So I’ve talked about you know why empathy is important, so let’s define it. So I speak at a ton of companies and a ton of conferences, and I’ve heard two definitions of what empathy is. So the first one is the dictionary definition of, you know, understanding and sharing the feelings of, you know, people. Which, you know, yeah. That sounds about right. And sure. The other one I hear, and I hear this one a lot, and people get angry every time they talk about empathy for someone, and they get on their high horse and they have something to say, they have feelings. And then they just go off. They’re like it’s that thing you have to do in order to not be an asshole at work.

laughter

Sharon:

Now, I actually agree with these both 1000%, especially the second one. However I don’t feel that these two definitions are beneficial. I don’t think that they give you guys any guidance into how to be actively empathetic, right? And the problem is that these two definitions are nouns. They are intangible. They don’t give you any direction. And so, you know, I kind of got to thinking like how can I explain this concept in a way that people can kind of take this with them. And so I was thinking of a thing to like compare it to. Right? Like a thing that pretty much every single person will hit. However people can’t fully explain. And then I was lake, okay. I got it. It’s love. Aw. So brand new love is the coolest feeling in the world. You feel like this is the best person that you will ever meet in your entire life. You can do absolutely anything, you write ridiculously long text messages. Who has time to do this? I don’t. But you know what good for him. And you do incredibly dumb things that last forever because you need everybody to know that this person is the most incredible human being in the world. You think they’re cool, you think they’re the best and you just want to be with them until the end of time and this is what the result of that is. But you know, then time goes on a little bit and you, like those things that person did that were so cute in the beginning are so not cute anymore. And then one day you realize, oh, my God, this is not just easy. This isn’t just a feeling. This is difficult sometimes. So after you spend some time with this person, you realize like oh, shit, I need to try. Being in love in the beginning is really easy. After a while, it’s a choice. So as a noun, it is an idea. It’s an incredible idea. It’s the coolest idea. However, it is an intangible thing, right?

Love as a verb however is a choice. And it’s a choice that you have to make every single day. So if we bring this back to empathy, empathy as a noun is an idea. It is a great idea. It is the best idea. However, it is intangible. Empathy as a verb, however, is a choice. It’s a choice that you are going to have to make every single day. It’s an especially important choice when it comes to shaping culture in your companies. So now I am going to talk just a little about culture, because you know, I think there is a lot of value in creating a great culture and having that culture have the foundation of empathy. So when we view this word work, a lot of us think this, right? We think of air very corporate setting with cubicles and offices and those kinds of things. However, as time is going on, we live in an increasingly global culture where a lot of the times now our teams are dispersed, right? They are all over the country, all over the world. So with this global work force, culture is a lot more important. Investing in good culture is incredibly valuable. So let’s define culture quickly here. So culture is the shared values, attitudes, standards and beliefs that characterize members of an organization and define its nature. So I see this definition and I see two different parts. Right? The first one is the shared values, attitudes, standards and beliefs. I feel like these are all circling around the same point and that’s the experience that people are having when they are interacting with your company or with you.

Now the other part of the definition of culture is defining its nature. And this is, I feel like, the most important part of culture. Because culture defines you. However, it doesn’t define you in the way that you think. So I called this section of the talk the myth of culture, and here’s why I kind of call culture a myth. I feel like culture cannot exist without a sense of community. A lot of the times when we thinking about community, we think about our personal spaces, right? Like our neighborhoods, our developments. However, I’m talking about the communities that we build, like when we go outside of our homes, like the groups we join, our themes at work, all of those things are communities, right? So you know, like if you see these sort of names here, all of these are communities. And they empower their members through education and activities and they focus on a couple of really big sort of core values. And big ideas. Right? And those core values, those ideas define these communities and everybody knows like what those things are. And so you know, the big things are going to define your community, however they’re also going to define your culture, right? So, you know, if you think about this in terms of you know like the corporate setting, those big things have defined companies in really debt mental ways. If you think about a company like Uber, a few people there, they did things consistently, like that really defined how everybody views them as a company, right? Aggressive, misogynistic, all of those kind of things, are also big things. And they define the culture.

However, on the opposite end of the spectrum, you have a company like Netflix where they are known as having a very positive culture, a very open culture, and a free culture and inclusive one as well. And so the big things are going to — whoops, sorry. I am going backwards. Sorry about that. So the big things are going to define your culture. Right? However, the little things are going to create your culture. And it’s those little, everyday actions by every single person in the building, those things are going to create the culture that is then going to define you. So those everyday actions have to be rooted in empathy in order to transform the way your teams communicate as well as collaborate. So, you know, now like I want to talk about choosing empathy, right? So I personally feel like, you know, every single person out there is going to have their own sort of definition of what empathy is going to mean for them. For me to choose the little things, here is how people can show me empathy and here’s how I can show others it as well. So I call this the empathy mind set.

For me it’s three steps. The first one is patience, then you have perspective and finally connection. So for me, patience comes down to just causing. A lot of times when we’re in these very difficult situations, we kind of rush to judgment on things, right? So we don’t always think about the other person as a person. And we just start talking and saying things that we don’t always mean. And so patience for me is taking a deep breath and then remembering the goal of the conversation. Remembering the why. It’s very important. The next thing is perspective. Now for me perspective, it comes down to getting clarity. That was not on purpose by the way. That was in the talk the whole time. So perspective helps us to focus on understanding a lot of the times in these difficult situations like we think we can see the entire picture. However we only know a very small piece of the puzzle. And so by taking a step back and saying like, okay, like I just need to understand where this person is coming from before I jump to conclusions, it’s going to be a little bit of a better experience. Another way to get perspective is to rephrase what the other person has said. You know, when we are listening to people, we don’t always hear what they said. We hear our opinion of what they said. And so by rephrasing them, we are eliminating some of the biases that are naturally there.

Finally connection. This for me is speaking with intent. When we are on the defensive or if we are on uncomfortable or if we just don’t feel like ourselves, we kind of speak in a reactionary way. So speaking with intent is being proactive. It’s being very measured in our responses and it sets the stage for all future interactions. And so that’s why I call connects the beginning. And here this just kind of shows that the foundation of this is just patience. Right? It’s causing, it’s calming — pausing, calming down and taking a step back. So to close this out, the big dies that I want you to sort of take with you are these. Empathy is a verb. It is a choice. And it’s a choice that you can make every day even if it’s hard.

Culture is going to be the result of community. So if you focus on creating a solid community, then culture is going to take care of itself. And empathy mind set is going to really lay the foundation for teams that are going to be incredibly collaborative. Also it’s going to create a positive environment. So finally, you are going to fail with this. I fail at this every single day. However, what’s important here is that you continue to try, right? Like failure is only failure if you give up completely. So if you keep trying, if you keep practicing empathy, then the people around you are going to be a lot more appreciative and you are going to be a positive force on your teams. Thank you.

applause

Nathan:

Thank you so much, Sharon. So what a lovely first talk to start Clarity

Sharon:

Thank you.

Nathan:

I’m curious, as we think about the application of empathy in our space of design systems, what things come to mind to you in increasing a designer and engineer’s empathy, particularly one that works on a design system in connecting with other people, particularly if these themes of autonomy or threatening whatever their job as they existed today or as they think about their own justifiable self-interest and incentives that other people have, what would you say to those designers and engineers to help them increase their empathy in starting those conversations?

Sharon:

You know, so for me, I come back to, you know, just having perspective on things. I feel like we just assume that we have a very good comprehension of every single thing that’s going on in people’s lives. So if people can just take a step back and say okay, like I don’t completely understand like what this person has to go through every single day, and then it’s a lot simpler to approach those kinds of situations from a place of just perspective as well as understanding. I don’t know if that fully answered your question.

Nathan:

It’s great. So starting these conversations can sometimes be threatening to one’s self. You have to put yourself out there. I really appreciate that you said I have to put myself out there and start a conversation. And so that makes me think about confidence. And not all of us are outgoing and so on. What would you say to a designer or engineer or anyone to help them gain confidence to start the conversation?

Sharon:

Okay. I am not outgoing. Like, at all. And so I know how challenging it is to you know, approach these difficult conversations. And I would say, you know, to just go up to the person an just talk to them. I feel like conversations can be a lot simpler if we just kind of calm down before we are approaching them. And I know that’s really hard, right? Like if you’re very passionate about something or if you are prepared to like go in there and disagree, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to just come from like a place of calm. However, just approaching those conversations, just prepare yourself, right? Like have a couple of notes written down and then just go in there, just with the goal in mind. It’s going to get easier to start those more difficult conversations if you continue to pursue them. Does that make sense?

Nathan:

Sure. And in your talk you evoke this contrast between what we think of as work, this place we go with cubicles and two plants that are really tall in front of all the cubicles, and then how so many of us have to reach out and create a connection through our digital channels, our devices. And so what would you say to people that are more isolated from that sense, that they don’t have a way to physically read and connect with someone, but instead have the screen and the text box and the stream of words that they engage with?

Sharon:

For sure. I work almost entirely from home. So I know how that feels to be like completely disconnected from people other than things like slack or texting. I think it’s important to build very strong relationships any way that we can. If that means calling a person instead of e-mailing them or going out of your way to spend time on site with your team or with your clients, just building those personal connections can’t happen, you just have to really put yourself out there and create them yourselves.

Nathan:

Last night I had the privilege of talking with Dan Mall a little bit about connecting with different designers around an organization and the varying degrees they’re willing to engage with you as this practitioner of design systems. I really liked your quartet of values, attitudes, standards and beliefs and particularly with belief you talked about trust faith and confidence. But if you’re a member of an organization that lacks of culture of critique, that lacks the connectivity with designers and you’re not necessarily high level management to create that culture, what do you do from the bottom up to start to lay the foundation or start to put the seeds to help that culture grow?

Sharon:

For sure. I personally believe that culture can come from every single part of the system in place. On the leadership is going to have a much bigger sort of control in that culture. However, creating a culture is going to come from the bottom up, right? So you know, the people who aren’t towards the top of the pyramid, I feel like they should be able to go to their managers and just say hey I’m doing this project, I’m doing this thing. Can you tell me how I can sort of do it better, right? Critiques can be a part of the culture if people really pursue them.

Nathan:

So my last question is, as designers, engineers and other people working design systems, we can get so mired in the details, the form controls focused state, creating all these little different elements with craft and a lot of our conversation comes down to collaboration agreement consensus with our community of designers or other people within our org. How do you how would you suggest to them that they keep their eye on the ball of empathy with their users, and how do you connect all that work on all those details about those tiny little parts with the actual experiences that everybody composes together?

Sharon:

Yeah, I mean, I feel like the most empathetic products designers are parts of teams that are very diverse and inclusive. I feel lake the perspective piece can only really flourish if your team has people that have a lot of varying perspectives on it, right? So I feel like they are companies they need to focus on creating very inclusive teams. So the experience of both creating the product and consumer using the product is going to be a much more empathetic and collaborative one.

Nathan:

Thank you so much. Let’s give a big hand for Sharon.

Sharon:

Thank you for having me. And thank you, Jina.