The internet is terrible at empathy. We will make it better.

We talked about empathy before, from the customer support side. I need to broaden the scope though, so let's lay down the groundwork again: Empathy is not about your listener judging what you say. It's about you knowing you are heard, and understood – and in this knowledge, you move forward unencumbered. Free of judgment, you get to be that much more of yourself.

It's easy – automatic, even – to communicate this in-person: you can see in the other person's eyes if they're with you, following what you have to say, encouraging your authenticity by their presence.

It's suuuuuuper difficult to get that kind of dynamic online, and we are going to solve that problem.

Getting this right is important. And efficient.

Invariably, when Abe and I have a disagreement, all I want is for him to understand where I'm coming from, judgment-free. I don't need him to agree with me, but I need him to listen and understand so we can both move forward together. (Also invariably, if the disagreement becomes contentious, it's because we both have that distance to cover.)

This is because, ultimately, I'm communicating a need. In those cases, it's a need to be understood. If we go wide with this, it could also be Abe communicating a scheduling need to a client, or a client asking him for a particular wedding photo.

If the need is acknowledged, fantastic: we can move forward, and the future is what we prepared for in the asking. We get speed, for we get to live by our needs, and not by foreign expectations.

If the need goes unacknowledged, it's like walking up stairs and missing a step – it throws off your flow, because more work is suddenly needed to keep your balance. To switch metaphors, you're asking someone to take a burden from you (yes, information is a burden), and though you've shifted your weight for the transfer, there's suddenly no one to give it to. You're left to swing around and regain your footing, still holding that burden.

But there's a subtlety here: if the need is responded to with judgment (negatively or positively), there's all the potential in the world for your burden to be increased.

If it's a positive judgment, best case, your mind is just a little more cluttered by the knowledge of how someone feels about you and your needs – and your outlook changes with that distraction, just a little. Or in a worse case, you end up addicted to those positive judgments, and your behavior changes to accrue more of them. (I'm looking at you, Facebook/Instagram/etc.) And if it's a negative judgment instead, well, it takes a particular kind of stability to prevent that from being a burden all its own.

We are currently bad at this.

The current set of social communication tools are almost exclusively based on reactions. Or judgments, since that's what they are in practice. Facebook brought it mainstream with likes, Instagram has hearts, and Slack said screw it let's give them all the emojis ever. I'm a πŸ™ person, myself.

(Medium deserves credit, while I'm on this subject: they just now swapped their ❀️'s for πŸ‘'s. Literally, the feature is called claps. It's no longer about affection, but about yes-you-wrote-something-important. This is the right direction.)

On the other side of the spectrum, we have the ancestor of reactions: read receipts. Emails, text messages, nearly every popular messaging system had/has some way of letting the sender know when their message was delivered or opened. This is still crap. A read receipt is not in the same ballpark as a nod during conversation to let you know that I'm with you. There's no intent, and the lack of intent breeds anxiety in the sender. (Did they actually read it? If they opened it yesterday, why haven't they responded? Should I follow up?)

We will do better.

Things rebalance. Antipatterns are eventually corrected. We currently have a universe of social media in which everyone is addicted to collecting likes, goaded onward by the systems we use, that we've built, and by tuning for the reaction we short-change our own substance.

We, collectively, will fix this.

I am part of this solution. I've talked earlier about how we handle mentions within the Locksmith team – if you're in an online-heavy team context, I strongly recommend that read.

If you're not (or whatever, even if you are):

  1. Keep a weather eye out for shifts in the industry. This will change, because it has to.

  2. Stay aware in your own life. Notice when it's more useful to give judgment-free acknowledgement rather than adding your feelings to the mix, knowing that doing so will keep life simpler for the person you're working with. This isn't always the right approach – you have needs too, don't ignore them – but it is often the right approach.

  3. Give me your email address (it's that box down below), because I am building a communication and coordination and getting-things-done platform that addresses this head on. It is going to be excellent, and I can't wait to show you.

❀️ πŸ†™ πŸ™

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