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April 21, 2017

Dear Agile: How Do I Improve My Empathy?

3 mins read

This post is the latest in Excella’s Dear Agile blog series. Have a question for Dear Agile? Send it in via our anonymous submission form.


I’ve been hearing a lot lately about how empathy is an important skill in organizations as they adopt Agile principles and practices. Can you explain why it is important and how I can improve mine?

– Tuché Phielly


Dear Tuché,

Empathy can be thought of in two forms. The first is emotional empathy; this is where you can identify with someone and their feelings. The second is cognitive empathy; this is where you not only can understand their feelings, but you can see their perspective as well. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with it — only see it. By the way, if you want to learn more about cognitive empathy, Practical Empathy by Indi Young is a fabulous book.

Now, everyone has a different perspective on what they see and hear. With that being said, what we want team members to have is a shared understanding of the work and each other’s perspectives. When we improve this understanding, it improves our conversations and, thus, our effectiveness. For teams, this means each team member gains a better understanding of what is meant when we talk about the work. Here are three concrete examples:

  • Understanding each other’s values allows us to create better working agreements.
  • Understanding the rationale for how Product Owners make prioritization decisions helps team members anticipate how to make their code more robust to handle likely changes.
  • Managers understanding the perspective of their employee’s concerns helps the manager keep a high level of engagement.

Understanding these differences in perspectives is extremely important to seeing potential reasons for a person’s actions. Misunderstandings often occur by assuming some rationale that isn’t congruent with what the person is actually thinking. So, do this exercise the next time you see some action or behavior you don’t understand: Try and think of at least THREE very different, rational reasons why they may have taking this action.

Overall, improving your cognitive empathy towards others requires open-ended inquiry by having people explain their thought processes. Doing this in a non-threatening manner takes a lot of practice with powerful questions and effective listening techniques. And, exposing your assumptions helps others expose theirs, leading to greater understanding. Getting familiar with models like the Ladder of Inference and the Johari Window can help you gain and share different perspectives. Why not run a workshop that helps people make these connections, perhaps using the Empathy Toy?

About the Author

Paul Boos is an Agile Coach who, for the last 20+ years, has been passionately exploring improving software development, and particularly the leadership needed to make it successful. Paul works with executives, teams, and those in-between to develop pragmatic approaches to achieve enterprise agility applying Lean, Lean Start-up, or Iterative approaches, and portfolio management techniques. He straddles both the practical (hands-on) as well as theoretical (what could be done) and looks for unique applications for the people with which he works.

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