The power of empathy in business

Empathy in business may seem like a very odd concept, but I believe it could be the strongest trait a developer has when building trust with clients.  Learn how empathy has served me well in my freelancing career.

I love watching Foundation, the interview show by Kevin Rose. Recently I was watching an interview with Tony Hsieh where he said the following regarding a company’s core values:

“Do it from the beginning . . . figure out your personal values and just make those your corporate values”

One my personal values is empathy, the ability to relate to someone else’s point of view. (side note, it’s impossible to write about yourself without sounding conceited but I’m going to push forward with this) It’s something I’ve always had, in a family therapy session, when asked what was a good thing my step-dad noticed about me, he said:

“Patrick can put himself in other people’s shoes.”

My shoe size is US 13, so he wasn’t being literal.

This ability to understand and care about other people’s points of view is fundamental to how I run Anecka and how I try to live.

As a group, I think sometimes developer’s can lack empathy when it comes to project, maybe this stems from operating in a binary world. In code things work or they don’t, true or false, one or zero. This type of thinking is extremely helpful to solving technical problems for our client. Where we sometimes go wrong, is applying binary thinking to justify our own personal tastes. I’m sure we’ve all said something like the following before:

“WordPress? WordPress is written in PHP, PHP sucks, we’ll have to rewrite”

“They want a breakdown of a simple subtraction in this report? What, they can’t subtract columns A & B themselves? Phfft…idiots”

“This data layer is the worse, it depends on a MySQL backend, we need IoC in-case the client wants to switch to a REAL database down the road.”

“It doesn’t work in IE? They should be using Chrome anyway”

All of the statements above are focused on what individual developer wants, not what the client needs: maybe they like WordPress because of they know the backend, maybe the extra breakdown is necessary for auditing, maybe MySQL is the platform of choice because they have other reports stored in MySQL.

Focusing on others instead of ourselves is the primary topic of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

empathy in business


Empathy might be confused as weakness or softness, but I consider it strength. A confident, strong person secure in their thoughts isn’t scared to listen to another point of view and try to understand another person’s position. By showing respect to the other side, you can quickly defuse a tense situation and work on a productive outcome for everyone.

Here’s a great quote from Carnegie on focusing on what the other person wants rather than yourself:

“Personally I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms. So when I went fishing, I didn’t think about what I wanted. I thought about what they wanted. I didn’t bait the hook with strawberries and cream. Rather, I dangled a worm or grasshopper in front of the fish and said: “Wouldn’t you like to have that?”
Why not use the same common sense when fishing for people?”

It would be ridiculous to fish with a hamburger, but we do this everyday when dealing with clients when we talk about the technologies or the things we want out of the project.

In case the point hasn’t sunk it yet, Dale gets even more blunt:

“Why talk about what we want? That is childish. Absurd. Of course, you are interested in what you want. You are eternally interested in it. But no one else is. The rest of us are just like you: we are interested in what we want.”

I think the biggest misguided criticism of “How to Win Friends” is that it seems like Carnegie is telling us we need to fake caring about others as a trick to get them to do what we want. That’s insane. That’s like saying we trick our friends and family into doing things for us by faking interest in their lives. No, we do things for them and they do things for us because they love us (and we them).

So our client’s have to be our friends? Nope, but we do have to remember that they value different things than we do and care about different things than we do. As a developer I care about clean and maintainable code, but my client doesn’t. However they do care about keeping maintenance costs low which I can easily connect to the clean code. Knowing this it’s easy to for me to explain why testing and spending time on writing correct code is important to the client’s interests.

Empathy can also be a great tool for dealing with conflict or disagreement. How often do we run into a particularly challenging client that just seems impossible to work with? It’s always a fight with them over one thing or another, they ignore your recommendations at best or constantly argue for the exact opposite. You know you’re right and the client is wrong. You’ve proven again and again that you know what you’re talking about but the more you argue the deeper they dig in their heels.

So my question is, what makes you think you’ll gain anything by continuing to argue? Isn’t reasonable to assume that they think they’re just as right?

What is the value in being “right” anyway? Oftentimes the only thing you’ll achieve in being right is a begrudging acceptance. Do you think that’s a way to win a lasting client relationship? Dale Carnegie covers this as well:

“If you argue and rankle and contradict, you may achieve a victory sometimes; but it will be an empty victory because you will never get your opponent’s good will.”

“By fighting you never get enough, but by yielding you get more than you expected.”

Again, yielding your ground in the interest of understand where the client is coming from and why they’re arguing with you isn’t weakness. It’s called listening. After all, you’re client is the expert in their business and their market, you’re not. This doesn’t mean you’re wrong, but there could be something you’re missing and by arguing with the client you’re not giving them a chance to articulate their real concerns.

If you work on empathy, truly understanding and relating to other people, pays off in dividends in business and in your personal life. To start here’s a few steps you can take:

I highly recommend reading “How to Win Friends and Influence People” also “The Trusted Advisor” by David H. Maister is a great guide as well. The great news is that I believe empathy is a trait we all share innately as people, all it takes is just remembering to practice it everyday in our lives.