I promised to experiment and share those experiments on LinkedIn, together with the inevitable failures. I knew it would be hard, but I had in mind that as long as I learn something from my failures it would be okay to talk about it. It turns out I was too optimistic. Some failures reveal a lot about who I am, and it’s scary to share that.
I’m committed to this, so even though I feel anxious and scared about sharing what happened, I will do it.
There are two recent experiments I want to share with you. The first one was deliberate and seemed simple enough: ask a question on StackOverflow about a technical issue I’m struggling with. The second one was spontaneous and scary: practice empathy instead of sympathy with someone in turmoil.
Experiment 1: ask a question
I was raised in an environment where knowing the answers was rewarded. I’m reasonably clever, so I did well and I grew up confident and expecting to know the answers. I could usually get by without asking questions. These days I completely buy into the power of questions, and often get compliments for being a good listener and asking great questions. If I’m honest, I mostly seem to pull that off when I’m coaching or trying to connect to someone. It is still a major struggle for me to ask questions that are more knowledge-related, simple questions like: “Where is a good place to park around here?” or “How do I run a subset of the automated tests?”. The more I feel that I ought to know the answer, the more I struggle to ask. I’ll spend hours browsing websites and reading documents just to avoid having to ask someone.
I’m in the middle of taking over the maintenance of Propile, a tool we use for the sessions of the XP Days Benelux conference. I’ll spare you the details, but I’ve been working on this on and off for several months now, and still haven’t got a fully working development environment. So I decided I would create a StackOverflow account and post a question. Making my account was easy, but when I started to formulate my question I faltered. I wanted to make sure I formulated it well, gave enough context. Most of all, I wanted to make sure I didn’t ask a question somebody else had already asked. I’d feel guilty of wasting people’s time. So I started searching for similar questions, even though I’d done that before.
Long story short: I still haven’t posted a question. I have found more information, and I have a hunch now: something I want to try before posting my question…
What I’ve learned from this? Some limiting beliefs have become so ingrained and powerful that it is a real challenge for me to overcome them. In my case, one of those powerful but unhelpful beliefs is “I have to know all the answers.”
Experiment 2: empathy instead of sympathy
I was reading Brené Brown’s book “Dare to Lead”. Calling it an excellent book feels like an understatement: I’ve been moved to tears several times while reading it. Just after reading about the difference between empathy and sympathy, something happened to my wife. She was in tears and scared. I realized that in the past I might have responded sympathetically: trying to calm her down by telling her things will be okay. This time I resisted the temptation to take the easy way out. I acknowledged her fear and made myself stay with her emotions, however uncomfortable it felt. I don’t know how long it lasted, I just know that I was determined to support her in the best way I could.
The next day we talked about how it felt for her. She told me that she felt more understood and connected than on other occassions. I didn’t “take over” like I sometimes do, and she appreciated that.
I’ve learned that some of my well intentioned responses are actually aimed at avoiding the necessary tough moments, and that I am capable of showing real empathy even though it is hard.
Key take aways
Looking back on last week, a lot of amazing things have happened. Seemingly simple tasks like posting a question on StackOverflow turned out to be daunting. At the same time, I know I can be brave in tough moments. I’ve had some great conversations, both face to face and on social media. I’ve experienced deep connection in stressful situations at home, at work, and on the road. And if you’re reading this then I even managed to publish an article about a failure that hurts. I’m proud of myself, despite the failures.