Laura Dietze at #dareconf 2014

Pushing back blocks empathy. Can you connect instead?

When a colleague makes a suggestion that we fear may harm our chances of success, we tend to “push back” against their position. This confrontation normally leads to neither side being satisfied. But if we connect instead of pushing back, we can move beyond positions and discover the underlying needs. This builds empathy and opens up options we hadn’t previously considered.

I often hear about the frustration people feel when they talk to colleagues. For example, you’ve probably encountered versions of:

  • the manager who won’t allocate time for usability testing
  • the subject matter expert who insists on using bureaucratic language
  • the client who wants “a slick look” without concern for the user experience

When this comes up in a meeting we tend to push back. I’ve heard people describe it as a useful skill: the ability to challenge other people’s assumptions and present your point of view. Although that sounds constructive, when we push back we start a fight—your position against mine—which blocks connection and empathy.

Some people talk about “educating the client”—like a schoolteacher correcting a child’s spelling, we point out the correct way to build digital products. But education isn’t something you do to people. Real learning only happens in a safe space—where the learner isn’t afraid of attack—and if that’s what we want, we need to behave like a coach rather than an expert.

There’s another option: connect with the person at a human level. This is both more scary than pushing back and less likely to backfire. Our options are:

  1. Say nothing to avoid confrontation. Likely outcome: you feel resentment or anger
  2. Push back by trying to fight for your position against theirs. Likely outcome: neither side gets their needs met
  3. Connect with the person by trying to discover the needs underlying their behaviour. Likely outcome: increased empathy and connection as new possibilities emerge that allow everyone’s needs to be met

How can we discover people’s needs? The key technique is listening. In each of the problem scenarios I listed, we don’t have a common understanding about needs and objectives. If we can find out why the person doesn’t see the value of usability testing, we’re closer to finding common ground.

Why is connecting more scary than pushing back? Because it requires us to stop playing the expert and let go of the judgements we’re carrying about how other people are “wrong” and “don’t get it”. To truly connect, we need to reflect on the causes of our frustration: which of our needs aren’t met. Then we can stop fighting people, and instead request that they behave in a way that helps us meet our needs.

(Want more? Come to my people skills workshop in January.)


Photo: Laura Dietze presenting How to lead without losing yourself at #dareconf 2014. Credit: Paul Clarke.