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This chapter is from the book

Empathy

In the spirit of seeing things from both sides, start with empathy. Empathy is identifying with another's perspective. Empathy is NOT, however, sympathy.

In the following scenario, Jane, an accountant, is discussing her job with Ron from the software development team:

  • Jane: My job is stressful at the end of each month. I am required to put in a lot of overtime to close the books. My boss is high strung and is all over me to get my work done. It is annoying—I hate the last week of every month!
  • Sympathetic Ron: I'm so sorry to hear that. I hate bosses like that—some bosses can be real jerks! What can I do to help reduce your workload and get your boss off your back?
  • versus
  • Empathetic Ron: I can imagine what it would be like to work under that type of pressure. A few years ago I had a job with similar circumstances, and I remember what it felt like.

Notice that sympathetic Ron is problem-solving Ron—the fixer. He is like the Mom kissing the child's boo-boo to make the pain go away.

Empathetic Ron is also understanding and may communicate that he "gets it." However, he may actually choose not to take sides. He expresses that he can see Jane's perspective but doesn't immediately pounce on the problem to fix it, sugar coat it, or pretend it isn't there.

On a project team, empathy can be a powerful tool. When empathy is genuine, a connection can exist between individuals that enhance their communication with each other. The wall that can exist between people often breaks away when an empathetic connection is made.

During requirements sessions on software projects, there is often an elephant in the room that nobody will discuss: We cannot build everything you have asked us to build. Some of the best-written user stories may never become software because they will be continuously overlooked during sprint planning meetings.

When a feature desired by one or a few is pushed down the priority list, emotions may enter the scene. At times like this, it's important not to back down and allow emotions to cause low-priority requirements to bloat the scope of a project. At the same time, understanding the perspective of the requirements' owner can help avoid the loss of commitment from those whose requirements were eliminated. An empathetic viewpoint can do two things:

  • It can help validate that the decision to lower the priority of the feature was prudent.
  • It can avoid sending mixed signals to those who are disappointed that they won't get their desired features.
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