Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Empathy is a Technical Skill With Andrea Goulet (PNSQC)


Today has been a whirlwind. I was up this morning before 5:00 a.m. to teach the penultimate class of my contract (sorry, I just love working that word into things ;) ) but suffice it to say the class is still happening while PNSQC is happening. That has made me a little tired and thus a little less blogging today. Add to that the fact I was called in to do a substitute talk in the afternoon (glad to do it but that was not on my dance card today) and I'm really wondering how we are at the last talk of the day and formal conference. regardless, we are here and I'm excited to hear our last speaker.

I appreciate Andrea talking about this topic, especially because I feel that there has been a lot of impersonal and disinterested work from many over the past several years. I was curious as to what this talk would be about. How can we look at Empathy as a technical skill? She walked us through an example with her husband where he was digging into a thorny technical problem that was interrupted by Andrea asking him for a moment. His reaction was... not pleasant. As Andrea explained, she realized that he was deeply focused on something so all-consuming that it was going to be a big deal to get his attention for needful things. Instead of it being an ugly altercation, they worked out a phrase (in this case, "Inception") to help see when a person is on a deep dive and needs to be in their focused state, at least for a little while longer. While I don't quite know that level of a dive, I have times in my own life when I get caught up in my own thoughts and I bristle when someone interrupts/intrudes. By realizing these things, we can not just recognize when we ourselves are focusing on deep dives, but we can also recognize when others are as well. This is a development of our own empathy to aid us in the process of understanding when people are dealing with things.

Okay, that's all cool, but why is this being called a technical thing? Because we are free and loose with the use of the word "technical". Technical comes from the Greek word "Techne", and techne means "skill". That means any skill is technical when we get down to it. It also means it's a skill that can be learned. Yes, we can learn to be empathetic. It's not something we are born with, it's something we develop and practice. Motivation likewise drives empathy. In many ways, empathy can be a little mercenary. That's why we get it wrong a lot of the time. We often want to reach out and help in ways that we would want to be helped, and thus our empathy is highly subjective and highly variable. Additionally, empathy grades on a curve. There are numerous ways in which we express and experience empathy. it's not a monoculture, it is expressed in numerous ways and under different circumstances and conditions. There are a variety of components, mechanisms, and processes that go into our understanding and expressions of empathy. It's how we collaborate and solve complex problems. In short, it's a core part of our desire and ability to work together.

Andrea showed us a diagram with a number of elements. We have a variety of inputs (compassion, communication) that drive the various mechanisms that end up with a set of outputs. Those outputs come down to:

  • Developing an understanding of others 
  • Creation of Trust
  • A Feeling of Mutual Support
  • An overall synergy of efforts   

 Empathy requires critical thinking. It's not all feelings. We have to have a clear understanding and rational vision of what people want, and not specifically what we want. 

On the whole, this is intriguing and not what I was expecting to hear. Regardless, I'm excited to see if I can approach this as a developed skill.

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