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

Travel Tips 2019

I love to travel. Whether it is for vacation or for work, the thrill of visiting a place I don’t call home excites me every single time. It is particularly energizing if I am visiting a new place, because I truly love exploring the unfamiliar. 

As I travel more and more, I increasingly keep an eye out for travel tips. There are a lot of tips out there. Having spent years researching and soliciting tips, and after a fair amount of personal experimentation, I wanted to share what has worked best for me when I travel.

  1. Stay hydrated during your flight. I love coffee and bourbon, but generally avoid drinking either before or during my flight. Instead, I opt for lots of water and electrolytes, and I feel noticeably better if I am thoroughly hydrated. I carry a 9 oz. Swell water bottle with me, which is the perfect size for slipping in a purse, and I often ask flight attendants to fill up my bottle during flights (some are more willing to do so than others). Related to this, don’t wear jumpsuits on planes, even if they are in fashion at this point in time.
  2. Noise cancelling headphones. Dane is particularly tech savvy, and with the amount I fly, he very kindly gifted me a pair of Bose QuietComfort 35 II noise canceling headphones. And they changed my life. I never realized just how noisy a plane is until I used these on a 13.5 hour flight to Helsinki.
  3. Load up on all the entertainment. It is hard to remember this when you’re constantly on the move and have a Todoist list like no other, but I am always grateful to past Angela when she remembers to download podcasts, sync music, and get a range of books on the Kindle. I have a broad range of interests, so I have a really difficult time predicting what future, on-the-plane Angela is going to want to do. So, I download everything in advance: serious to frivolous podcasts. New music that I haven’t listened to yet and old favorites. Business and nonfiction to mythology (a standard favorite of mine) and fiction. As I regularly do this, I find that I always have content when I want it. 
  4. Pack light and avoid checking bags. If I can avoid waiting for luggage, it gets me out of the airport faster. I’m also more likely to take public transit if I am not carrying too much, which often gives me a better feel for the city I’m visiting. Dane and I went on our around the world, three week honeymoon (shout out to Kimberly for donating all those miles and to our wedding guests for funding our dream honeymoon!) without checking bags. Having done that, I feel like it would take a very special case to bother checking a bag. 
  5. Try to leave a little room in your luggage. And I say this as someone who generally isn’t interested in bringing tchotchkes, souvenirs, swag, etc. home. But when I do, having this little extra space gives me that option. I also don’t want to put as much care into packing for the return home. I don’t want to neatly fold dirty laundry, so it is going to take up more space. Prepping with a little extra space makes me feel less guilty about squishing my bag on the way home. 
  6. KonMari it. This is a recent discovery and I will never look back. Here’s a video that describes the concept, and what I particularly loved about this is that I could easily see everything I packed and it saved space. Absolutely brilliant, and I’ve taken to arranging my closet at home this way too. 
  7. Pack some staple medications. I always have Advil, NyQuil, DayQuil, Sudafed, Benadryl, and Pepto. These are broad blast pills that even if I rarely use them, when I do need them, I am thoroughly relieved that I have them. 
  8. Don’t get cheap/flimsy bottles for your liquids. Nothing is worse than a shampoo explosion, so investing in the right bottles does make a difference, and they last longer. I bought some at a Walgreens that leaked everywhere. Now I use some heavy duty ones from Sephora.
  9. Sign up for the travel programs. There are many free versions, and while they do add to your email inbox, it streamlines communication between you and the service, you often get some extra bonus items. 
  10. Keep healthy and listen to your body. I often hear statements like “I’m traveling so I can not exercise or indulge in xyz foods”. I’m not saying don’t do that, but if you travel frequently, the exception quickly becomes the rule. I want you to be healthy! Consume all the tasties in moderation, and find opportunities to squeeze in exercise. For instance, when I’m going through the airport for any flight, I walk around the terminal before my flight and take stairs instead of escalators. 

Photo credit, courtesy of https://unsplash.com unsplash-logoElement5 Digital