On programmers and empathy

June 30 2017

Programmers do their best to write prose in the same way that they write code - clearly and concisely. Being able to communicate effectively is a valuable skill to have on any high functioning team, and something that I think is especially important for remote teams. Nonetheless, this approach is missing a key ingredient that most developers overlook when communicating with others, and that’s empathy. They’re forgetting that there is a living person on the end of their ‘terse’ emails, chats in Slack and reviews on GitHub pull requests who has real feelings and emotions. They’re no longer writing instructions for a machine to carry out, so why do it?

“You’re wrong” is an example statement that I’ve witnessed written often by programmers(generally by someone more senior or with specialist knowledge) to another individual that I believe is entirely lacking in empathy, and as such I stay away from using it.

The reason why I’m not fond of this statement is because at it’s core “you’re wrong” is a binary statement(computer code) though reality is nuanced. Any conclusion we derive and base our decisions from is based on the information we have at hand, and most of us who endeavour to do a good job don’t deliberality make poor decisions. As a result there’s no reason to make someone else feel stupid(potentially publicly humiliated in the case of open-source) just because they’re not informed. I’d imagine it would cause some level of animosity over time and most certainly a lack of respect in the short term which most certainly isn’t useful for a high functioning team. Not to mention that it makes the individual who said it in the first place a hypocrite since they’re speaking in absolute terms and not open to having their stance changed by another.

Hopefully the takeaway you get from this is to consider how you’re going to be received next time you’re about to send off a message to your coworker or peer. And obviously try to refrain from saying “you’re wrong”.