On building empathy

Early early in my career, a friendly coworker said to me, “You’re like, my work husband.” It was an odd declaration, so I laughed and asked what prompted her to feel this way. She explained, “My husband always tries to fix my problems at home, you do that here at work.” 

At the time, it felt like a badge of honor. I was helping by trying to fix things, and I’m good at fixing problems. So, everything was peachy, right? 

Looking back, I wonder if she was actually frustrated with my reactions. Expressing challenges and problems isn’t an invitation to solve problems, but a vulnerable gift that requests to be seen and heard. I had skipped listening and validation in favor of fixing. 

Becoming a full time community organizer for WordPress was an impetus for shifting my mindset. One of the hardest and most rewarding aspects of being a community organizer is that, in building close relationships with people, you learn about their lives: the good and the heartbreaking. 

What is empathy?

Very simply, empathy is the ability to understand and share in the feelings of another person. I’ve frequently heard empathy coupled with “perspective taking”, or the ability to take on the perspective of another person.

I believe that the vast majority of people have empathy, but that channeling that ability is a less understood and practiced skill. Moments of joy are easy to relate to and celebrate. But moments of pain, with hurt and discomfort, are straight up difficult, especially if it involves someone you care about. 

As a community organizer, empathy is one of my most utilized skills, especially in this past year. Here is what I’ve learned. 

Give people the space to express themselves

When people have difficult things to share, they have the challenging task of finding the right words to capture what it is they are feeling. This can lead to lulls in conversation, and it can be uncomfortable to be in that silence. 

Fight the urge to fill that silence, and instead, give that person the space to process. If they take a very long time, saying something like, “I can feel how hard this is for you. I’m here.” is a great way to show that you care, without adding additional pressure.  

Don’t focus on having the right thing to say

I love this short video narrated by Brené Brown on empathy, and the last line has always stuck with me. 

Because the truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection. 

– The always insightful Brené Brown

During difficult conversations, especially with people you care about, it may be instinctual to want to make things better. After all, we want them to feel better! But think back on all the difficult times you’ve been through. Could anyone really have said something to make you feel better?

Saying something along the lines of, “Gosh, that seems so difficult, and I can see why you are feeling this way. Thank you so much for sharing with me.” goes a really long way.

One final benefit of not needing to find “the right thing to say” is that it frees you up to really, truly listen to what is being shared. 

Perspective taking is not responsibility taking

There is a very fine, important balance in taking on someone else’s perspective and recognizing your own feelings. Without this understanding, it is easy to fall into the trap of feeling responsible for someone else’s feelings. Empathy can turn detrimental, if our own feelings succumb entirely to someone else’s. 

I won’t lie, the emotional part of my work is frequently what I find the hardest – it sucks to see good people struggle, and empathizing with those challenging feelings takes a toll. Whenever I have a difficult, emotional conversation, I always pause afterwards to breathe, and remind myself that perspective taking is not responsibility taking. 

But finding this balance actually strengthens the ability to be empathetic and genuinely listen to people’s hardships. If, with every difficult conversation, we were so burdened by feelings, it would all be simply Too Much. As community organizers, and people who deeply care about helping others, finding this balance enables us to continually have hard conversations, and to help more people be seen and heard. 

Empathy is an invaluable skill, and brings about vital connections. And at the end of every day, don’t we all deserve that? 

Creativity in the Time of Chaos

I don’t know about you, but my level of creativity this year was at an all time low. Following my reflections on resilience, my brain turned to how to adapt to this COVID-19 world. This wasn’t a bad thing, in fact, it saw me through my most challenging moments of this year.

It took a sparkly new project suggestion to make me realize that, in focusing solely on the fundamentals of “how to adapt,” I forgot to ask, “what could be?”.

I’ll level with you, though: at that point in the year, I was sad, and as a logic-driven problem solver, I was comfortable relying on my usual methods for addressing daily project fires. I don’t know that I could have successfully asked myself that question. 

That other leaders were able to usher in an entirely new concept caused me to remember just how inspiring a spark of creativity can be, and the powerful impact it can have on others.

With that observation, I’m dialing up the creativity as part of my Leadership During Chaos Response Toolkit. But as a leader, how can one start with creativity and turn that into reality?

Anyone who has worked with me on WordCamp US knows how much I love our blue-sky thinking exercise at the beginning of the organizing cycle, where we imagine what would make for the most amazing WordCamp US ever. In fact, this is the first step in the Walt Disney Method, a handy process for translating creativity into reality. What I love about this method is that it is only three steps, and in Times of Chaos, I want as streamlined an approach as possible. 

The Walt Disney Method includes three frames of mind to walk through in order: the Dreamer, the Realist, and the Critic. In WordPress, an open source project, everyone can participate in those steps! Here is a quick explanation for the Walt Disney Method, and how it applied to the creation of Learn WordPress

The Dreamer.

The Dreamer is not bound by reality, risk, or any other hindrance. The Dreamer asks, “what could be” and brainstorms without limitation, and with all the creativity in the world. 

The COVID-19 pandemic caused the WordPress community to cancel all in-person events for 2020, so the big question was: how can we now connect as a community? A powerful community practice is to invite brainstorms and discussions, and the WordPress Community Team makes a point of having these open conversations as much as possible. We started here, with this post on reenvisioning online events, which was quickly followed by a proposal to build community beyond events.  

The Realist.

The Realist evaluates the Dreamer’s ideas for practicality. The key here is that perceived risks are not blockers, but challenges to be overcome, so that dreams can become reality. 

The proposal for building community beyond events invites more specific feedback, and community members begin to take on the role of the Realist. Questions are asked and finer points discussed to help creativity alchemize into an actionable plan, resulting in refined project details and a roadmap. Through a collaborative, multi-team effort, a live platform came to fruition – you can see how many community members/Realists participated to make Learn WordPress possible!

The Critic.

The Critic takes themselves outside of the Dreamer’s and Realist’s work, and evaluates the plan from an outside perspective, raising potential risks or gaps, and making suggestions for improvement. 

Of course, building a new platform was just the beginning. To make sure it would continue to grow and appeal to the broader community, a working group came together to focus on different success and adoption factors, such as collecting and reporting statistics, or finding more discussion group facilitators and attendees. Interestingly, as the work continues and moves towards a full launch, the Critic feeds the Realist, creating a great feedback loop that serves to improve the project. 

Pretty nifty! I encourage you to try this the next time chaos strikes: turn on your curiosity, try out the Walt Disney Method, and spark your creativity. 

You can get involved in Learn WordPress by following the WordPress Training Team and Community Team blogs.

Resilience in the Time of Chaos

This year, I realized how much I love and undervalue protagonists. I’m an avid consumer of books and movies where protagonists weather challenges and succeed. The more I consume such stories, the more I expect that the hero will continue fighting against all odds, be it a multi limbed monster or a trip to the underworld. Before you ask, yes, I did recently read Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, and five stars out of five would recommend. 

As the protagonist of my own story, I have weathered 2020. It has been A Year, zero stars out of five, would never recommend. Like too many this year, I lost loved ones, and felt isolated, disconnected, and at times, hopeless. I resigned myself to being locked down, to helplessly reading the news, and to ordering a heck of a lot of Taco Bell.

In stories, heroes always have something that drives them, that bolsters their emotional resiliency to keep doing the thing. Because that thing is worth it, even if, as we saw in Avengers: Endgame, worlds are changed and lives are lost.

So what was my Thing? What keeps me resilient? My 2020 journey led me to discover what I value and what keeps me going, and it came from asking myself a whole lot of why. 

Now, this might sound a little corporate – I know a number of companies and teams that use Sakichi Toyoda’s Five Whys exercise, and this is very similar. But pestering yourself with and reflecting on the question of “why” turns out to be a surprisingly thoughtful way to uncover your underlying motivations, your personal authenticity. In a show of vulnerability, here is how one of these “Why” reflections went for me:

It’s 2020: why do I get up in the morning?

Because I have a loving partner, an awesome dog, and a job to tackle. And somewhere in this world is the promise of coffee. 

Why do those matter?

Because even when the world is dark, it makes me happy to be a part of societal structures that involve those I care about. 

Why is that important?

Because by being a part of these structures, I can actively help improve them. 

Why improve these structures?

Because if I can improve them, or create new, better ones, I have a chance at enhancing experiences for others. 

It’s a personal exercise, and you’ll likely find yourself asking different “why” questions. The exercise is about digging deeper, about exploring your root causes. For me, in going through a number of these “why” reflections, a common theme surfaced: that I’m driven by helping others, and that I want to make everyone’s experience on this earth better. As the protagonist of my story, this is my authenticity, and what keeps me resilient, even in the face of 2020. 

Photo by Tbel Abuseridze on Unsplash

Bilbao

For what may be the last trip of 2020, Bilbao did not disappoint. The weekend was spent wandering Las Siete Calles, or Casco Viejo, eating pintxos at Mercado de la Ribera, and taking in all that chic architecture. Of course, the Guggenheim Bilbao was not to be missed, and I loved walking through Gehry’s modern marvel.

Regrettably, I forgot my camera! Despite that, I was impressed by the quality of the photos captured on my iPhone 11.

Cuenca

Cuenca is a charming town surrounded by lush trees, fields of sunflowers, and peculiar mountain landscapes. As a UNESCO site, it’s known for a number of historic landmarks, including Las Casas Colgadas (The Hanging Houses), the remaining example of homes that were once common along the Huécar river.

I love a good myth, and Cuenca is steeped in old legends. My favorite is that of “La Cruz del Diablo“, or “The Cross of the Devil”. In short, it’s the tale of a handsome Lothario who falls in love with a stunning, new woman in town. She plays coy with him for a while, before inviting him to join her at Las Angustias at night. They meet and canoodle, but surprise! She’s actually the devil and scares the pants off of our Lothario, although, the legend is unclear if he has pants on at this point. Lothario runs to el Convento de los Franciscanos Descalzos, and clings tightly to the stone cross. The devil strikes a blow that leaves a mark (still visible to this day!) on the stone cross. The man, whose name is actually Diego, renounces his womanizing ways by entering the Convent and never leaving it again.