Empathize, It's Worth It — or — Being Right Is Usually Wrong

Empathy is more important than logic or "correctness".

Defined as the the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, empathy derives from the Greek pathos, which survives into modern English and connotes the ability to evoke great feelings (usually of pity or sadness). When we empathizes, we identify with the plight of the other, and begin to see things from their context.

Logic, on the other hand, is just a bunch of hard and fast rules that, while handy for programming computers, are mostly inapplicable to the world of humans.

A life (not lived in complete solitude) necessarily involves dealing with other humans. Unless you are content to accept that what may come may come, and that there is little one can do about their lot in life, life means bringing people around to your point of view. I call this projected empathy.

Let us suppose that I want you to employ some creation of mine to solve your problems, and in return, compensate me for the value I bring. This is called sales.

The Engineer in me (who is, internally, at least, quite persuasive) wants to appeal to your logical side. The solution is feature-ful. It solves your problem. The price point is within your budgets. The implementation is clean; the design, impeccable. You would be a fool not to see that. Buy my stuff!

Why aren't you opening your checkbook?

You are not a logical being. I am not a logical being. Despite what logic may dictate, humans are ruled by feeling and emotion. If you do not feel that mine is a solution that fits your problem, you're not going to buy.

"That's ludicrous!" screams the engineer! Clearly, this is the correct and true way forward. "Why can't you see that I'm right?!" he whines.

The Engineer wants empathy by fiat of logic. This projected empathy is not earned, it is forced (or at least attempted to be).

The Salesperson in me knows better than the engineer. The first thing he does is ask you about you. What do you do? How do you do it? What problems do you face? These questions establish a rapport. He isn't selling — at least not like that engineer. This rapport builds a bridge, from you to him. It binds you in trust. Humans, wrapped up in their feelings, love nothing more than talking about themselves, their interests their accomplishments. It's why we tweet, blog, podcast, and speak at conferences.

More importantly, in coming to understand who you are and what motivates you, the salesperson develops empathy. Empathy is the best way to connect with someone and figure out how to bring them around to your point of view

This sounds crass, I know, but let me explain the nuance here.

Empathy changes the empathizer. Much like a well-wrought logical discussion can move both sides towards a common agreement, empathy opens up, inside the empathizer, new feelings. Humans mimic. It's why babies spend so much time smiling at their parents; it's a game, one hard-wired deep into our bones.

When you empathize, you not only understand the other person, you also come to appreciate their views, and in doing so, modify your own. Empathy without change is not really empathy; it's a charade.

I wrote this article to understand how empathy works (empathizing with empathy), and to get my feelings and thoughts out and into prose (self-empathy). I hope there are lessons in here for others.

Thank you.

James (@iamjameshunt) works on the Internet, spends his weekends developing new and interesting bits of software and his nights trying to make sense of research papers.

Currently exploring Kubernetes, as both a floor wax and a dessert topping.