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Human Skills 005 - Communication and Empathy are Key to Engineering
with Ben Lindahl
How often have you had a long conversation about what to build, come away with new-found clarity, gone off and built it, and then come back and discovered that what you understood wasn't at all what the other person had intended?
In Ben Lindahl's 16 years as an engineer at Google, he became known for creating spreadsheets and docs. Careful, tangible artifacts that captured the agreements about what they were trying to build and made sure everyone was in alignment about what truly was being agreed upon.
In this interview, we cover communication as a two-sided process, why empathy is important and how to build it, how to get good at meetings so you don't have to have as many of them, and much more.
How do you make sure you understand what is being received when you communicate?
Communication is really is about being able to to get ideas across to the other party.
Whether it's mass communication or it is one to one communication. Whether it is technological communication like a radio or it is, individual one on one in person communication.
No matter what kind of communication, the most important thing is that the receiver has a clear understanding of what the sender is saying.
In radio, you can get static, and if you are in person , you can still get certain amounts of static, can get certain amounts of noise, or you could just be totally interpreting things differently than than what the person intended to say.
And so I think it's really important to be aware that the person you are talking to doesn't have the same ideas, preconceived ideas in their head as you have, and they also are trying to figure out what you're saying as you're going along.
And so I do try to get feedback from them. There's a few ways.. for instance, asking them to repeat back to me what I was saying to them, or what they think I was saying to them, or asking them specifics, about how they think something could be handled, but basically being able to make sure that it's a bi-directional communication.
Making sure that you're able to have feedback basically when you're communicating with the person.
And it's also I think about developing a rapport and and being able to express the empathy. I think that we communicate so much better when we are not having to be constantly vigilant and we're able to be empathetic to a person, and we can trust that the person is empathetic towards us.
Are there particular practices that you use to develop empathy?
For one thing, I try to make sure that I preferably have a face to face meeting with somebody in person, because that turns them into a three dimensional person. And it develops them as a whole person in my mind.
And so for me that's actually really important for me to be able to build empathy. I feel like if I've only met them one time, but in person I still have this sense of their personhood. Of who they are. And so it actually becomes easier because I'm able to have that in mind when I'm when I'm trying to be empathetic toward them or trying to understand where they're coming from.
Email is is a terrible medium for empathy because you don't know what the tone is, and and people will ascribe all of their greatest fears onto the tone of whatever was sent to them, and it becomes like this really distorted fun house mirror of what they're actually receiving and how they see themselves.
And then I think being able to paraphrase things that they think or to be able to say "is X important to you". Those are also ways of developing empathy for the person, because one of the hardest things about empathy is just to know what how people are experiencing the world. It's not just about "having feels" when you're talking to somebody. it's about being able to accurately understand what feels they have.
How are communication skills important to your work as an engineer?
At Google, I think I was known for creating spreadsheets, and second to that I was known for creating docs
And being able to make sure - and this gets out of verbal communication into written communication - but being able to make sure that we have the same model of what the project is. What we're trying to accomplish.
A lot of the time, the project can't even start until you've done that. You can't really start the project until you until you ensure that you're on the same page and you have a model of how things would work, how things are broken up, or as I had it in a meeting that I was just in earlier today, What are the really important questions to answer.
Sometimes you get fifty five minutes into an hour long meeting and only then realize what the questions were that you that you were supposed to answer in the meeting.
And then you have to have another meeting to follow up on that, so I think it is really important to know what are the areas that need to agree on, and then to come up with mechanisms, whether it is meetings or in person, or it is docs or spreadsheets. Come up with mechanisms to express those things in a way that everybody says "Yes, I agree with that" or "No, this is where I disagree."
Note: The descriptions here are from Ben in his voice
The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman - This is a classic of design education. I appreciate that Norman encourages the reader to focus on understanding where the user is coming from and how they are approaching doors, coffee pots, and alarm clocks. The simplest objects we interact with have design facets that can help the user immediately understand them or can repeatedly trip the user up. I also like the message that as users, we should empathize with ourselves and understand why these objects can frustrate us.
Critical User Journeys - A framework for analyzing what the user wants to accomplish and how your product can fit in. Take what you want and leave what you don't. I personally really like that it starts from a user's true goals (the rule of why) and then sets out a methodology for mapping how the user achieves these goals today. This exercise alone can be incredibly enlightening.
Marketplace from APM - A constellation of podcasts that explore the economy from a humanistic perspective. These shows help me understand the current economy, but they also expose me to parts of the economy I didn't even know existed.
You Are Not So Smart book and podcast by David McRaney - A set of discussions on how we delude ourselves and the shortcuts that our brains take. Understanding these delusions can help us make better choices and better understand ourselves and each other.
Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan - An evidence- and science-based introduction to mindfulness. I took the first session of Meng's course at Google and it was incredibly enlightening and helpful.
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