Empathy and Perspective

This morning, Karen McGrane published a fantastic essay about empathy and technology. As technical professionals, we often deal with people who don’t get it, for various values of ‘get’ and ‘it.’ That’s not a bad thing: everybody has areas of expertise, Heinlein be damned, and helping each other out is part of the deal. I’ve written before about the importance of understanding and recognizing others’ areas of expertise, too.

Reading Karen’s column, though, I realized there’s another side of this ‘not being an asshole’ thing. Until you’ve experienced a blood-chilling “Oh God, I should understand this but I don’t” moment of your very own, it’s hard to understand the stress and worry that clients and students experience. Sometimes, the stressed out person isn’t even a client or a student: peers, mentors, and experts face those moments, too.

What really drove this home was Karen’s story about a presentation on mobile content that the two of us delivered at a 2009 conference. Both of us were interested in mobile at the time, but hadn’t had a chance to really sink our teeth into the problem on large projects.

Eaton was valiantly trying to explain to me how a CMS could support multi-channel publishing via an API, and I just wasn’t getting it. He used metaphors (“imagine the API is a straw sucking out the content”) and probably even resorted to hand puppets acting out a short play. I felt dumb, frustrated, out of my league.

And I had a flash of insight, one that transformed how I approach my work:

If I feel so clueless talking about content on mobile, think how everyone else must feel.

What she doesn’t mention is the flip side of that conversation: I, too, felt out of my league and was flummoxed by the complexity of the mobile shift we were talking about. During that epic brainstorming session, she turned the tables on me more than a few times. Her explanations of the challenges of effective content reuse, and its impact on the complexities of the editorial process, revealed that a lot of my technically convenient ideas didn’t account for The Real Problems.

Over the following weeks, months, and years, we learned a lot and had opportunities to help piles of clients through those disorienting (and terrifying) transitions. But at that moment, we were both trying to wrap our heads around complicated problems with no easy answers. It’s disorienting to realize that she felt just as out of the loop as I did.

In those moments — when I feel clueless in front of a colleague I respect or a client I need to dazzle — the temptation to put up a false front is the strongest. “Nod thoughtfully,” says my brain, “and chuckle knowingly to imply this is all old hat! Don’t let them know you’re in the dark.” Reading Karen’s story reminded me that all of us have those moments, and they’re nothing to be ashamed of. Rather than being embarassments to avoid, they can be bridges, opportunities, and reminders that we all have room to learn from each other.

Update: If you work in this tangly cluster of technologes – digital publishing, web design, CMS implementation, content strategy – it’s easy to overlook the value of the “soft skills” and emotional insights that play such an important role in what we do. The Dare Conference is a great opportunity to recenter and learn from others. September 23-25th in London. A pile of smarty, hearty people. Check it out.

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