Everyone is just fine

In a year where everyone is most certainly not fine, we sure do a whole lot of saying we are. 

And I get it. When I get on yet another Zoom call and the person asks, “How are you?” saying “I’m fine, how are you?” is the simplest, politest answer.

After all, “I’m stuck in a despondent cycle of fear, isolation, despair, and sweatpants” is probably not the most effective way to start a meeting. 

The problem is, that’s exactly how we are starting our meetings. We’ve just suppressed all those unwieldy feelings down into our sweatpants. 

That’s not great for many reasons. For my work, especially when I am mentoring or leading a team, it is important to me to meet people where they are, to make genuine connections, and to really understand how they are doing. 

So, Angela, how are you doing?

I’m an extroverted introvert, and these days, even my introvert is begging for more connection. But it is wildly difficult to get that level of connection, especially when we all ride a daily, endless carousel of video calls for all our connections. I’m also getting increasingly annoyed with myself when I boil all my 2020-2021 emotions down to “I’m fine”. 

And so, in an era where too much feels outside my control, I’ve been reflecting on what I can do to readily reengage with people over video calls. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Change the questions

I’ve been experimenting with alternative questions to, “How are you?”. So far, the best responses come when I add more effort to my question, and give it more specificity.

The simplest change that I’m regularly using is to add a time frame, such as:

  • How has today been?
  • What do you have planned for tomorrow?
  • What did you do over the weekend?

This results in more forthcoming, complete responses, as a stressful day tends to be less complicated to express than a stressful year. Recent or planned time bound activities tend to be more top of mind and more effortless to share.

Sometimes, I’ll tailor the question to the person. If I’m more familiar with them, or if I know something specific that happened to them recently, I’ll start there. For example:

  • I saw on Instagram that you got a new puppy! How are they adjusting to the family?
  • You’re right in the middle of a huge project! What’s your main focus right now?
  • You’ve been having such a hard time lately. I’m here for you. Would it be helpful to talk about what you are going through?

By focusing on something closer to the person, I’m more likely to get a more comprehensive answer, especially if the person feels comfortable sharing. On the flip side, I love getting questions like this, because I feel like the person is truly interested in learning more about me. 

The last thing I’ve been trying out, especially with those who are feeling particularly impacted by COVID, is to give people the space to talk about it. Again, I’ve been approaching that through more specific questions.   

  • I read that [area] is having another resurgence of COVID and I know you’re right in the center of that. I care about you and am wondering how you’re impacted by the local situation.
  • You’re so close to your family, how are you feeling about the safety measures they’ve taken?
  • We recently crossed one full year of living in a pandemic, how did that “anniversary” impact you?

Again, I love when people ask me these questions because they make me feel cared for! In particular, that last question around how one year of pandemic affected people generated some really emotional, thoughtful, reflective answers.

Put in effort, get the results

You might be thinking that some of these questions seem so specific, how could I possibly learn how people actually are feeling after asking them. You’re probably right in that I don’t learn EVERYTHING that they are feeling (friendly reminder: people are complex creatures). But I sure do get more thorough answers, colored in tone and description. All of this brings me closer to how someone is feeling, even on a video call, and makes for a great foundation for even more conversation and connection.

Communicate with Empathy for Stronger Communities

At the end of last year, I wrote about the importance of empathy, and a few things I learned around practicing empathy. It’s one of my favorite topics, and I’m so excited to be giving a talk on that today at CMX Spark EMEA. It’s a short talk for a big topic, so this post serves as a companion piece to my talk itself. You can find my slides here, and I’ll update this post with the recorded talk afterwards. 

As a community professional and super caring human being, I am always mindful of where and when I can communicate with empathy. When someone shares their experience or their feelings with me, that’s a major gift! If what they are sharing requires them to be vulnerable and open, that’s a show of trust, and how I respond can either reinforce or break that entirely. In those moments, turning to genuine empathy is my preferred way to connect with others.

Refresher on Empathy

For this presentation, I’m working with a very simple explanation of empathy as the ability to understand and share in the feelings of another person. This is not to be confused with sympathy, which is feeling concern for others and wishing them to be happier, or for their situation to improve in some way.

When we communicate with empathy

When we communicate with empathy, it can vastly improve the experience community members have in our community.

Your community will feel safer and more welcoming.

Part of responding with empathy is reserving your own judgement, and really listening to what is being said. A community member who is treated with empathy, especially in the hardest moments, will feel more like they belong. 

Community members will feel seen and heard.

Communicating empathetically helps people feel supported, and maybe even validated. 

Psychological safety improves.

If a community member expresses something difficult and they are responded to with empathy, they will feel more empowered to express themselves, and likely in more collaborative ways. 

Members will want to continue to be involved in your community.

Members who are treated with empathy will see your community as a place that values each individual, and places importance on treating each other with kindness and respect.

But practicing empathy is surprisingly difficult. It takes self-awareness to set aside our own judgement. It’s hard to share in a perspective when everyone has a different frame of reference. On top of all that, feelings are messy, and it can feel both uncomfortable and vulnerable to share in someone else’s experience. 

Community professionals can apply what is commonly referred to as Active or Reflective Listening as one way to demonstrate empathy in communication, and it starts with being able to really, truly listen. 

The challenge of listening

Listening? Also surprisingly difficult! There are two common patterns of listening that don’t really actually listen. 

The first is that we listen to respond. How often, while someone is saying something to you, are you thinking about the perfect response before they’ve even finished? In this case, we’re focused on what we want to stay instead of hearing what is being said.

The second is that we listen to fix a problem. I really like problem solving, so I’m guilty of this one more than I would like to be! In this instance, we’re focused on providing a solution as a response, and in doing so, easily miss acknowledging the problem itself or underlying problems. 

I give a couple examples of these communication patterns in my presentation. Check them out! It might sound funny when you read them to yourself, but these are really common ways that people talk to each other. We regularly miss out on what is really being said, along with the opportunity to communicate with empathy. 

Active or reflective listening

This is where active or reflective listening can help us better listen and communicate with empathy. First, change the way you listen, and listen for the following instead.

Understanding

Give the person you are speaking to your full attention and listen to connect. Do you fully understand what they are expressing? 

Curiosity

As you’re listening, note what else you’d like to learn. What haven’t they said? What kind of information would add to your understanding? If you can see them, what is being expressed through their body language?

Keywords

As you listen, take note of keywords that are being said that really capture what the person is trying to express to you. What words stand out to you as being crucial to the story?

In listening this way, we can create empathetic responses by reflecting keywords that demonstrate our understanding and curiosity, in our own terms. This might sound like you’re being redundant, but it’s actually an important step in communicating empathetically. Active or reflective listening achieves the following:

1.
It shows you were listening

Your full attention is on them and what was shared. Even if you didn’t fully understand you were there with them in that moment.

2.
It allows you to check your understanding

By rephrasing and reflecting keywords, we can check our understanding, and give the other person a chance to clarify or even add more information.

3.
It drives connection

It builds rapport, and helps the person feel heard, understood, maybe even validated. We show the other person that we’re there with them in the moment, that we want to understand what they are going through. We really connect with them, and we’re communicating with empathy.

Try it out!

Active listening may feel unnatural at first, but practice, along with a reliance on your sense of care for others, will make this second nature. Copy this worksheet, which has some prompts that require active listening, and try to create your own empathetic responses! 

Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

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