Breaking the Tech Language Barrier: How Empathetic Communication Can Bridge the Gaps

The system won’t work if there are no developers. It also won’t work if we fire the sales team or get rid of the marketing staff or can the designers. Tech is an ecosystem, and it’s much healthier when we are working cohesively within that system.

by Sharon Steed on November 24th, 2015

So many truly great things are happening in the tech industry. This industry single-handedly changed the way we view marketing. It has opened the floodgates for opportunities of advancement for thousands of young adults. And it has created some of the best and most widely used products on the planet. For all the tremendous things this industry has created, innovated and disrupted, we all have one big problem in common. And that’s the way we communicate with each other.  

I never wanted to be a marketer. I went to school for journalism, worked in the industry until it crashed in 2008 and immediately switched over to business writing. At the ripe age of 23, I reluctantly resigned myself to the reality that journalism was no longer an option. So what now?

The answer was digital marketing. Shortly after I made the switch, companies started to really recognize the value of the internet. And me? I was in my early twenties and, all of a sudden, a social media expert. It truly was a right-place, right-time situation. But being so young and so green, I was always a bit intimidated to address bigger issues. I stuck with writing because that’s what people paid me to do. And as a freelancer, I didn’t think I had much say in much of anything anyway.

That all changed when I hit my late twenties and decided to work on an issue I’d been struggling with for my entire life: I am a stutterer. I started stuttering when I was a toddler, and I quickly learned ways to hide it. Or, at least, attempt to. Whether it was changing words, taking deep breaths or just avoiding talking almost entirely, I became an expert on holding a conversation without saying much.

And I was okay with that standard, until a few years ago. I began to notice how much my issues with my speech were affecting so many areas of my life. My obsession with sounding “perfect” hurt my relationships, both personally and professionally. I was terrified to go to networking events and meet new people because I didn’t want to embarrass myself by stuttering. So I faced my fear head-on and decided to try my hand at public speaking.

When I first started out as a speaker, I did it to get out of my shell. I didn’t want to be afraid anymore, so I changed my perception of what it was to effectively communicate. And that’s where empathy comes in. You see, I always thought the way I communicated with people was flawed because I stuttered. But what was actually happening was I was honing in on what it really takes to connect with human beings.


The author presenting at Madison Plus Ruby “What Stuttering Taught Me About Marketing”

I worked with a ton of companies throughout my career, some of them tech, and all of them with a glaring similarity: the more technical the company was, the worse they were at communicating with people. And the biggest culprits were always developers. Many developers have trouble communicating their ideas, and their listeners have a difficult time receiving them. When I looked a little deeper, I saw that there was a bigger issue at the root: empathy.

Empathy is defined as the ability understand and share the feelings of another. Psychologist Mark Davis suggests that there are three types: perspective-taking, personal distress and empathetic concern. Perspective-taking is purely cognitive; it’s being able to see things from another person’s point of view. Personal distress, on the other hand, sways heavily on the emotional side; someone literally feels the other person’s pain, sadness or happiness. And finally, empathetic concern is recognizing another person’s emotional state, feeling in tune with it and being able to feel and show the appropriate emotional response.

According to Ronald E. Riggio for Psychology Today, most humans are capable of being good empathizers on a one-on-one basis, but we’re not good empathizers when trying to be empathetic to a group. A good example of this is the divisions between liberals and conservatives on social media. We flock to our own; therefore, we have an easy time relating to people whose views are similar to our own. The other side of that is that we are quick to write off or even attack a person in a group that’s different than ours.

Need a more specific example? One of the best tech talks I’ve ever seen was given by Stephanie Morillo. She is a Bronx native working in tech in New York City, and her Madison Plus Ruby talk “Through the Looking Glass” discussed how difficult it is for people living in neighborhoods like hers to enter the tech industry. Why? According to Morrilo, because it’s exclusionist – and she could not be more correct. One of the biggest culprits is the preferred industry language.

Tech companies are constantly looking for “ninjas” and “jedis”. Rockstars and wizards. “Prophets” and “sherpas”. The problem with these types of job titles is that they target a very specific demographic, and alienate everyone else, creating a language — and an empathy — barrier. How many women can identify with any of those terms? How many people of color?

And that’s where the issue lies – founders and decision-makers continue to use this type of language to talk about the things they are doing. And they defend it, vehemently, to the point where they are pushing people who don’t “get it” away from them, their ideas and their product. They are excluding others who could contribute and being encouraged by their peers while they’re doing it.

Back in May, I spoke at LambdaConf in Boulder, Colorado, and that talk had an underlying message of inclusion. The organizer of that conference wanted to address the division amongst developers that use different languages – how we judge, ridicule and ostracize people who code in a language other than our preferred one.

Why are we doing that? Why do we view a group that has different views than ours as worse? Because we are so deeply attached to our “in group,” we deeply identify with them. Which, again, makes a lot of sense. In our minds, we are thinking “We agree on the important things, therefore I am going to go to bat for you.” But that natural response to connect with a like-minded individual also lends us to be decidedly less empathetic towards people who are not “in” our “in group.”

So why do these failures of empathy happen? And how do we counteract them to become better, more inclusive communicators?

The answer to these questions are one in the same. We often fail to empathize with people in a different group because we are socially distant from them. Remember the example I gave above about the tech language barriers? That is an ideal breeding ground for this. And because of that, our normal inclination to ease another person’s suffering through empathetic behaviors disappears.

Two women collaborating on a computer.

Photo CC-BY #WOCinTech Chat

This is why it’s important to practice authentic listening. Yes, you hear what they’re saying, but are you paying attention? Here is an example. Back in my early professional days in news, I was a liaison between the advertising design team, the advertising sales team and the editorial staff. Often, I had to communicate why certain design elements wouldn’t work in an ad to both the sales team – who responded to their clients – and the editorial staff – who needed space for their content. I also had to explain to the design team why we had to change the ad size at the last minute; to the sales team why their big client’s in-house ad was not going to get printed; and to the editorial team why they had 150 extra inches of space today.

As you can imagine, this caused problems. I quickly had to learn how to communicate messages in a way that didn’t place blame on anyone – oftentimes it truly was no one’s mistake – and how to switch up my language accordingly so I could explain things in a way that everyone would understand. How did I learn to do this? I listened. Intently. I really and truly paid very close attention to the words and phrases each of the teams constantly said and I used the lingo they used to get my point across. The side effect of this is that everyone was comfortable communicating with me. They all felt safe to bring to me any issues that would pop up, and they would do so in a way that was respectful. As a result, productivity as well as camaraderie soared.

We all need each other. The system won’t work if there are no developers. It also won’t work if we fire the sales team or get rid of the marketing staff or can the designers. What many people fail to accept is that tech is an ecosystem, and it’s much healthier when we are working cohesively within that system.

I think many companies are trying their best to make that ecosystem robust by creating their ideal company culture. Unfortunately, a lot of them are missing the boat because they are only hiring people like them. This is the wrong way to build your company. You want people on your team who are obviously capable of doing the job, but you also want people who are excellent collaborators with employees outside of just their team. The basis of collaboration is positive and effective communication. And that begins and ends with empathy.