Cultivating proactive empathy

Your taxi driver probably didn’t wake up envisioning life as someone who shuttled busy humans from destination to destination. It’s both possible that they fell into the job one day and stuck with it…or that they never dreamed of having the honor of meeting so many new people while earning a living wage. The point is that we don’t know.

The barista rolling their eyes at your fancy latte order might not just be another entitled millennial, they could be emotionally precluded from serving you because of issues at home. We don’t know if she’s working to put herself through community college and helping to supplement the income of a broken home and an injured guardian.

The customer interested in your product probably has very little interest in your product because you decided to use node.js and coffeescript, they might just be looking to increase their revenues in order to pay into their child’s college fund.

The Apple Store customer service representative did not wake up this morning determined to solve your problems, nor do they care that you’re spending money that you didn’t anticipate shelling out in order to obtain a replacement iPhone.

The person who fails to hold the elevator for you might not have seen you coming, and they certainly aren’t aware that you’re running late for an important meeting after getting a terrible night’s sleep.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

No one really cares about what’s going on in your life, people are self-interested above all things. Once we accept this fact and develop a sensitivity to it, the better we can navigate interactions with other humans.

In college I used to read this book repeatedly, and it had a profound impact on both my academic and professional trajectory. I learned to speak and think in terms of what others wanted, and there were few doors that didn’t open for me as a result of it.

Cultivating this empathy informs everything from my sales copy to how I write here on the blog to how I make conversation with strangers. I don’t possess too many special talents but if there’s one skill I’ve tried to hone over the years that I’ve found to be valuable, it’s this.

I really can’t afford not to be good at this, and neither can you.

Willie Jackson is a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Consultant & Facilitator with ReadySet, a boutique consulting firm based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a frequent writer and speaker on the topics of workplace equity, global diversity, and inclusive leadership. Connect on LinkedIn or get in touch.