Designers Mind: Communication as Empathy

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Designers Mind contributor Kael Gillam discusses how taking an empathetic approach is integral when communicating new workplace boundaries and practices.

In the last several years, there seems to have been a quiet acceptance of the sentiment that we feel more alone the more connected we are. We have more and more tools to communicate, to share, and to learn from one another, and yet depression rates and social anxiety look to be on an ever-increasing upward trend. The pandemic, climate change, political crises, and so many more widespread events have made novices of us all in trying to navigate ‘the new normal’.

It was a concept that I think many of us looked forward to; a better, shinier world where we all got along because we had been through the thick of it together and we’d all learned something about ourselves and the way that we want to treat one another. Perhaps it’s just my interpretation, but the sheen seems to have worn off quickly and we’ve devolved back into old habits. I am still getting emails late at night, demands for meetings with only an hours’ notice, and I am still tempted to ‘just do a bit’ on the weekend to get myself ready for a busy week ahead. Are unreasonable working hours and an always-on mentality part of my new normal, when they were a part of my old normal that I fought so hard to shed?

We’ve spent much of the last two and a half years at Designers Mind talking about how boundary setting is at the core of so many of our wellbeing practices. Boundaries have many layers to them, but at their core level are simply an agreement to stay true to a commitment. ‘I will not work on the weekend’, ‘I will set aside half an hour every week for my passion project’; these are just examples of non-negotiables that we can set for the benefit of our wellbeing. 

Other people accepting these boundaries can be an onerous task. Accepting that our boundaries are different from others’ can also be a challenge when we prioritise different things in different aspects of our lives. We’ll get back to that.

Communicating these boundaries – and having the confidence to stick with them – can also feel challenging and uncomfortable. How, after years of working with an employer, can you one day walk up to them and find a way to tell them you’ll no longer be answering emails after your working hours? How do you communicate to a new employer that you have familial care demands that take priority in your life without feeling like you might lose your job for not looking ‘as committed’ as colleagues without those demands? We can never predict how another person might respond to our needs, no matter how well we know them or feel that we have prepared for the situation.

Practising empathy is key to both boundary setting and communication. It is perhaps one of the most valuable transferrable skills we can take away from our collective human journey over the last two and a half years. Empathy is a difficult skill to teach; some of us are innately more sensitive to the emotional needs of others whereas some people find it truly impossible to intuit implied meaning and feeling. Whether a challenge or not, being an empathetic communicator is about putting aside your own needs, personality, and emotions to understand the whole context of what’s being communicated to you. 

For example, we can begin asking ourselves how to approach these conversations with ‘how is this person doing in their life?’ rather than ‘why are they bringing this up now?’, and ‘what might have brought this to their attention?’ rather than ‘I don’t care about this, so why should they?’. If we start to frame conversations in the context of other people’s needs and wants, then we can better begin to understand why they are raising an issue, calling a meeting, or sending emails at ungodly hours. 

When we do receive these confounding requests, we can practice framing our responses in a way to de-escalate the situation and come to a mutually beneficial solution. For example, to a last-minute meeting request: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but I’m unable to make a meeting on such short notice. Can you please let me know what the urgent actions are so I can take them away and we can set up a meeting to discuss at a mutually beneficial time?’ You’re setting a boundary (my time is precious and should be respected) but also acknowledging their internalised urgency and offering to help (I hear your need and will work to understand it better).

In tandem with this introspective approach is being diligent about the energy of the response matching the energy of the prompt. Unreasonable responses to reasonable requests are, unfortunately, altogether too common in the fast-paced design world. Replying-all and copying in the Managing Director when you’re upset with an email never solved a deadline dispute. Demanding to speak to someone’s boss instead of working through an issue collaboratively never produced a good design package. When we receive negative and disproportionate responses to our communication, we then must practice empathy to de-escalate the situation. What part of what was said might have triggered this response? Is it what I’ve asked or is it any number of things happening in the person’s life that has driven them to make a quick, rash, and/or unproductive response to my query? Would this be better resolved over the phone, so I can speak to them less formally to get a better picture of the presumed conflict?

If done with patience and a bit of grace, boundary-setting and practicing empathy in communication should make our interactions both in and out of work easier and more enjoyable. When we learn to take a step back and evaluate our own needs and the needs of those around us, we can find common ground and agreements more quickly than arbitrarily digging our heels in on our own principles. We can figure out why the deadline matters, how to prioritise tasks, and who in our team is most capable at any given point in time. Yes, this is all an exercise in patience and kindness. Being a good communicator, truly listening to people, is difficult work that is never truly complete. 

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