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April Wensel

April Wensel is the founder of Compassionate Coding, a company bringing emotional intelligence and ethics to the tech industry.

Listen to the episode

Tune in to find out:


  • April’s background in the tech industry leading up to the founding of Compassionate Coding.
  • How April understands the concept of compassion.
  • Rethinking the misrepresentation of-so-called soft and feminine skills.
  • Growing the skill of empathy and re-framing how we understand it.
  • Differentiating between the definitions of emotional intelligence, compassion and empathy.
  • Turning compassionate ethics into concrete strategies and action.
  • Fostering awareness and raising issues in a productive manner.
  • Dealing with the fear that comes along with confronting problems.
  • Self-care and awareness to pick conversations and battles.
  • Considering the leadership dimension of these imperatives.
  • The challenges that ideals of diversity and empathy pose to a team.
  • How emotional intelligence can be cultivated through intentional practice.
  • How to implement empathy when on the receiving end of feedback.
  • The power of clarifying questions and understanding each other.
  • How these ideas translate into relationships and interactions with clients.
  • Slowing down as a first step towards developing these skills.
  • And much more!

[0:00:05.8] ANNOUNCER: Welcome back to Happy Porch Radio. The digital agency podcast
for progressive agency owners and web professionals. Season four is an exploration of diversity
in our industry. Especially gender diversity.
This season, your host, Barry O’Kane is joined by some wonderful cohosts. For conversations
with agency leaders and diversity and inclusion experts.
[0:00:32.0] BOK: Hello and welcome back to Happy Porch Radio. In this episode, Erica and I
speak to April Wensel, who is founder of Compassionate Coding, a company bringing emotional
intelligence and ethics to the tech industry. The work that April is doing with compassionate
coding is one of the coolest and most inspiring things I’ve come across. It is amazing to have
her on the show. Our conversation touches on why April started compassionate coding and how
vital and emotional intelligence and caring is to the future of our industry. Especially in the
context of diversity.
So,let’s meet April.
[0:01:13.0] AW: My name is April Wensel, I’m the founder of Compassionate Coding, I’m a
software engineer and I’ve been doing that for 10 years and now I help teams become more
emotionally intelligent.
[0:01:22.1] BOK: Awesome, thank you so much for joining us.
[0:01:23.7] AW: Thank you for having me, I’m happy to be here.
[0:01:25.8] BOK: Also joining us this week is Erica, back again. Hi, Erica.
[0:01:28.9] EQ: Hey Barry.
[0:01:30.2] BOK: Good to have you back.
[0:01:31.1] EQ: Thanks, it’s good to be here.
[0:01:32.9] BOK: April, as we know, we talked - this season of the podcast is about diversity
and diversity in teams. Before doing that, I wanted to talk a little bit about why Compassionate
Coding and I guess, a little bit about the backstory to what led you to be doing what you’re doing
[0:01:49.2] AW: Sure, yeah. As I mentioned, I’ve been working as a software engineer for the
past 10 years, mostly up in Silicon Valley and I had a lot of fun doing that, I learned a lot,
worked on a lot of cool projects but I noticed a lot of problems with the industry as well. For one,
there weren’t a lot of people around who looked like me, not a lot of women. Two, I noticed that
there was just a lot of conflict on teams, a lot of seemingly silly things that would erupt into really
contentious, kind of, arguments.
I mean, you hear things like tabs versus spaces or Vim versus Emacs kind of being these huge
debates that people, you know, have like zero empathy in. I started to see, you know, unethical
products being built, you know? Using user data in unethical ways and kind of designing
products that prey on people’s addictions and things like that.
I thought that a lot of times, people try to solve each of these problems individually but I had this
realization that they all are kind of symptoms of the underlying problem which is that we just
don’t care enough about human beings in the tech industry. Around the same time, I went
vegan and so I started learning about compassion because the idea behind veganism is that
you have compassion for all beings. I learned about compassion and what it means, kind of from like a scientific point of view, what it
means to see suffering in others and want to alleviate it and I was like, that’s what’s missing
from the tech industry, that’s what I’m going to bring to the tech industry. And so that’s why I
started Compassionate Coding two years ago to bring that caring, concern for human beings
into the heart of the tech industry.
[0:03:18.9] BOK: Brilliant. When you say the scientific - unpack that a little for me, what do you
mean by that?
[0:03:24.4] AW: Sure, I feel like a lot of people learn about compassion through their religion or
something like that. And so I started learning about compassion because when I went vegan, I
went to this retreat about compassion and the head of the retreat, the leader, facilitator there,
shared this definition from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley and the definition for
compassion they gave was just the ability to identify suffering in others and the active desire to
alleviate that suffering.
So they shared, peer reviewed research on our – what it means in the brain to have compassion
and the benefits of compassion. It kind of made this compelling case for me that compassion
can be a very rational thing, it’s not just like feeling pity for someone or something like that.
[0:04:10.9] BOK: Yeah, that really makes me think of something that I really connect with when
I see your writing and some of the recordings of the presentations you’ve done, where you talk
about, I think you’re using the term catalytic skills but the kind of this almost, it’s not scientific to
be human almost. It’s not – there’s somehow lesser or something like that, something less hard
like hard versus soft and that kind of stuff.
Are those – I mean, is that fair of those two things connect to that sort of approach in that idea
of the wording that we use?
[0:04:39.0] AW: I think so, I think that there’s nothing wrong with being soft, right? I think a lot of
us can benefit from softening our approach but what I witnessed in the tech industry in particular
is that there’s so much emphasis on hard technical skills and so whenever you call something
soft, it’s kind of dismissed, it’s like, that’s not important. It’s also worth noting that softness in our
culture is often associated with women. Those two things combined, it’s seen as soft, means weak, it means women, it means all these
things and the truth is that these skills, like being able to talk to people, communicate, being
able to understand your emotions, they’re not soft in the sense that they’re easy or weak or only
for women.
There are for all genders, it’s hard to do actually and it’s really beneficial on a team. That’s why I
propose what you mentioned as term catalytic skills because I heard it from Daniel Goleman, he
just kind of mentioned it in an off-handed remark about how these skills emotional intelligence
skills, help us catalyze our other skills and so I was like yes, that’s a key point. I latched on to
that and made it a bigger deal here and I’m like, yes, these skills – like persistence,
communication, empathy, they help us use all of our other skills more effectively.
And so the catalyze the acquisition of and application of our other skills so that’s why I think we
should stop calling these things soft skills and instead, rebrand them, so to speak, as catalytic
[0:06:05.5] BOK: Yeah, I really love that, I started doing that in our team minutes. I really did
prompted discussions which has been fun.
[0:06:11.2] AW: Yeah, usually, that’s where it starts and I think that’s interesting. I actually just
heard from someone who saw one of my previous talks and she added to her resume, catalytic
skills. And it was a conversation piece in one of her interviews, you know? I think that’s the job
she ended up getting. It’s like you know, these things, we can make positive change here for
[0:06:29.2] BOK: Yeah, that’s really cool. Erica, you and presentations that you’ve done, you’re
talking about gender diversity and stuff. I don’t know if this connects but I’m wondering if the
design, or UX conversations that we’ve had around that being difficult to explain or articulate. If
you think that’s connected to the same thing this kind of changing or misallocation of the
priorities of what’s difficult or important or whatever the wording is?
[0:06:52.5] EQ: I definitely think it ties in for sure. I tend to – I guess the reasoning behind the
talks that I give is to build awareness which lends to empathy and I like some of these terminologies that you're using April. I’m definitely probably going to cannibalize some of that to
bring in.
I do think you know, empathy is huge because if we don’t understand what somebody else is
going through, you know, we’re not going to get it from their perspective. I see that as a huge
problem in the industry as well. As well as the whole, you know, toxic male culture that seems to
be talked about a lot on at least the podcasts that I listen to.
And again, all these terminology, we use the soft skills, the emotions or whatever and then
thinking that that’s not okay because they’ve been taught somehow through our culture that they
need to be tough and strong and in your face and you know, whatever, all these things are –
yeah, I definitely think it all plays in together with what each of us are doing in our talks.
[0:07:52.1] BOK: What I’m interested in as well is, taking that as I see it or really interesting or
fundamental point. How then do you – rather than sort of saying okay, we’re going to change
the words, how do you see that actually, you know, sort of introduce these kind of topics and do
more than just change the words and talk within the team and address some of these questions
as within the team?
[0:08:13.0] AW: Yeah, because you know, it’s true, it’s not just about changing the terminology,
although, that is important because it opens the door to even have these conversations because
previously, people would just shut it down like soft skills, that’s not important. The terminology is
important but it is only that, just the first step.
What I think is one of the biggest issues with trying to grow empathy, especially among
engineers and other sort of analytically minded people is that it’s viewed as something you’re
born with or not. You hear people saying, I’m just not a people person or you know, I’m an
introvert so I don’t need to learn that and nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, it’s not
– I’m still an introvert myself, it’s not that an emotional intelligence makes you an extrovert or
something like that or that empathy is something you’re born with or not-it’s something that you
can develop. I think one of the keys when I go in with teams is framing it as a skill because
that’s exactly what it is, empathy is a skill that can be grown.
[0:09:10.6] EQ: I think that’s very valid because I’m not a very empathetic person and it’s
something that I definitely had to work on and that it’s still a constant battle, trying to figure that
out. I think that’s good to bring awareness around that as well and not just use it as a cop out.
[0:09:23.9] AW: Yeah, it is a cop out, right? I think it’s worth mentioning that just a couple of
days ago, Linus Torvalds, you know, creator of Linux came out, he’s very well known for being
caustic and not showing empathy and you know, even being abusive in his language and he
came out saying you know, “Hey, my behavior has been harmful and I need to learn about how
people’s emotions work.”
When I thought that, I was like yes, okay, this is going to open even more doors, the fact that
this guy that people point to as, “I don’t need to care about it because you know, the creator of
Linux doesn’t so why should I care?” Now, it’s like yes, finally, we can have these
[0:10:00.4] BOK: Yeah, that’s like the point about representation or seeing evidence or
leadership or whatever, so important, really interesting.
I’d like to come back to that. I’d also realized that there’s something that we haven’t done on the
episodes but what will be interesting April, to define what you mean the difference or maybe
what you mean and the difference between empathy and emotional intelligence?
[0:10:21.3] AW: Yeah, I’ll throw in compassion too just because it’s in my company name. I
think definitions are important. I think emotional intelligence is this overarching term that
includes a lot of different competencies and skills. I see emotional intelligence as kind of the
umbrella that can include anything that involves people’s emotions and that’s pretty much
anything we do as humans.
Even, like, our being motivated in the world and being aware of what’s going on in our head. I
like Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence and he divides it into sort of four
categories, self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.
It’s kind of awareness and management in both the self and social kind of arenas. Empathy is a piece of that, that falls under the social awareness and to a certain extent, the
relationship management as well. Because empathy is about being able to identify what other
people are feeling and even to be able to feel those feelings.
I mentioned I’d add compassion because why not. So for me, compassion takes empathy and
then adds the active desire to alleviate any suffering that’s found there. I kind of sometimes
phrase it in my talks, it’s compassion, it’s like empathy plus action because you could feel what
someone’s feeling and just not really do anything about it, right? Not really care. Whereas
compassion is like, I feel this person’s suffering and I want to do something about that.
I think you know, you mentioned briefly like UX, I think UX a lot of times, when you talk about
reducing friction or eliminating pain points, that’s really taking a compassionate approach to UX
for example.
[0:11:53.7] BOK: That’s really interesting, maybe dig out some of the Daniel Goleman
resources that you mentioned, the books because that’s where it’s exploring a bit more so I’ll
put some links to that in the shownotes on how to do that and come for anybody listening.
Maybe that’s again something I’d like to come back to but one of the things that was really
interesting there was when you were talking about, or going back to the action thing like what
the action is and actually because one of the things that I think I find challenging sometimes is,
being clear on what actions, you know, what to take, either something might seem like such a
daunting problem to solve or it might just be because I find it a difficult - even just as simple as
having a conversation because you know, I’m finding it difficult as a conversation to have.
I don’t know if it makes sense but sort of, to talk a little bit about what you mean when you say,
plus action and how to actually turn some of these things and these thought process into
concrete things?
[0:12:43.5] AW: Yeah, I think you know, when you identify suffering and let’s say it’s just maybe
the implied suffering of you have a webpage and your users - you notice that there’s a lot of fall
off, there’s a lot of drop off from that website, if it’s to signup page, people aren’t signing up,
right? There’s something there potentially, some suffering that’s causing them to you know, get away
from your site. Even if that’s suffering and I use the term very broadly, could be you know, the
way you present your offering is not consistent with what they need. That’s a form of suffering
because they have a need and you haven’t met it. You’re trying to understand what that is and
you understand what it is through empathy, right? It’s like, I wonder what they’re feeling on this
page, let me think about that, maybe let me do some user tests, something like that.
The compassion is, okay, what can I do, what can I change on that page based on my user
research, based on you know, anything like that. Customer service reports, what can I change
to help alleviate that suffering so that I can help these people better, right? That’s like a very
kind of concrete example of how to apply compassion for like your website. Then, for the more
global things like hey, I noticed that there’s a lot of bias in the tech industry that’s keeping
women and people of colour and other underrepresented groups out, that’s a huge problem and
what can I do, right?
As a privilege person, what can I do. I think in that realm, it’s about seeing what, you know, what
small steps you can take. Sometimes that’s just doing a google search on like how to be a male
ally or how to be, you know, a white ally or whatever it is for underrepresented groups, how to
be a better ally. You know, finding tips on what you can do. Maybe it’s something as easy as
when you’re in a meeting, if you see that a woman is constantly being interrupted, maybe you
use your privilege, you know, as a man in that situation to say, I think she was saying a point,
can we get back to what she was saying and kind of guide it back.
That’s a way of alleviating suffering as well, that’s also a compassionate action.
[0:14:35.0] BOK: Yeah, that’s brilliant, really great examples. I like the fact, especially with that
last one where you say, it’s just a kind of, maybe bring the point back or acknowledge when
somebody’s being - trying to say something that isn’t being heard, it’s a very easy, small thing to
do, what doesn’t feel like, you know, I need to go ahead and solve the world problems, that’s a
bit daunting or scary or difficult or hits my budget or something else. It’s just something as a
small step, I really like that.
[0:14:58.2] EQ: How do you raise awareness though? Like in an office culture or something, I
know so many people don’t think of these things. How do you bring about that awareness and get them to care about noticing things like, hey, you’re interrupting or let’s get back to our point
or hey, I noticed that it’s only women taking notes all the time? Maybe you know, one of you
gentlemen could take a note, take notes for the meeting sometimes, you know? How do you
foster that? I guess is what I’m asking.
[0:15:26.2] AW: Yeah, when I’ve been, like at a company, working at a company on teams, I
would be very vocal about these things. So I would just say like for example, one time I was on
a team and people were always saying, we need to hire a good iOS guy, you know? I think that
that language is harmful because that kind of sets up an image in people’s heads of who we’re
trying to hire and it’s a man because we use the word guy.
I’d be very vocal about that, I was like, “Hey, you know, when we use this language, this is the
effect,” and then sometimes I would put that in the group Slack, the chat or I would bring it up in
like big group meetings and I would send articles to support my point and you know, there is
some emotional labor in that as a woman, you know, in a male dominated field. You do face
some push back for doing that and when I did that at that company, I was told that people were
afraid of me because you know, I was speaking up about diversity, you know? Heaven forbid, I
speak up about diversity.
There’s some pushback there. I also think that anything worth doing in life, you’re going to get
push back for. I’m just like, I don’t live in fear. If I care about something, I’m going to bring it up
and so I encourage others to live according to their values and so this is something to care
about, I say bring it up. Yeah, strategies are sharing articles because there’s a ton of research
now, like on the value of diversity and teams, on bias in the workplace.
Sharing these materials is useful and I think sometimes you know, banding together in like
diversity and inclusion groups can be helpful, just having a support group. Again, I think finding
male allies because – also allies that are higher up in the organization because that’s how you
create more positive change, is when there’s people in power.
Whether it’s societal power or organizational power that can also help, you know, make gains in
these areas. Also, I try to raise awareness just across the whole tech industry, I put out a lot of
content on Twitter and your blogs and you know, videos and all kinds of things. I speak like all
over the place. I try to plant seeds of compassion and inclusion everywhere I go. I think that’s something
everyone can do is you know, plant those seeds because I think that that’s how change
happens, you know? These small little things done by a lot of people can be very powerful.
[0:17:36.7] BOK: Do you find that there are circumstances in which there’s almost a fear factor
in having and raising those topics or raising those conversations?
[0:17:44.9] AW: Fear from –
[0:17:46.9] BOK: Fear of the pushback or fear of repercussions?
[0:17:48.9] AW: Absolutely. I mean, because there is going to be pushback like I mentioned,
there’s studies that show that women who advocate for other women are perceived as you
know, less competent and more like kind of troublemakers in the workplace. There is a bias
there but I think one way we - people who know this information, you know, may operate form
that place of fear, okay, I should never bring these issues up because I’m going to face
punishment for it.
I think that fear is not a very useful way to lead your life, I don’t think that being driven by fear is
the best way to make choices in life. I think it’s worth acknowledging the risks and that deciding
for yourself, whether or not the risks are worth it to stand up for what you believe in, right?
I also think that - having these conversations can be difficult but I also think that there’s always
somewhere else you could be working as well. If you’re in a place where even talking about
these issues is like ,“I can’t do that,” maybe you should start looking for somewhere else to work
to be honest.
[0:18:47.3] EQ: That’s a very valid point as well.
[0:18:49.3] BOK: Is there ways, having it said, having spoken to or met people who have said
you know, I would like to raise these types of topics and have these conversations but I’m
scared that, you know, there’s going to be a reaction or pushback. Have you got thoughts about some of the ways in which those points can be raised? Before, you mentioned one thing that
was really sort of kind of non-aggressive I guess but just by sharing articles.
Have you got any other thoughts and ways that that sort of can happen? I want to have this
conversation, even in a team that is very open and honest, it can still feel like it’s a difficult
thing? It’s a kind of a difficult topic to raise.
[0:19:27.1] AW: Yeah, there’s two things there. One is, part of why my company is
Compassionate Coding and it’s not like a diversity inclusion company. It’s just that empathy
really benefits everyone and so – when you have empathy on a team, you’re more likely to
create a diverse and inclusive team just because empathy helps you understand people from
different backgrounds and with different perspectives.
I think if you can frame the discussion sometimes around just more empathy and understanding
and that sort of thing. It can open up the conversation because it’s something that is relevant to
everyone so it doesn’t feel like, “This is just about women.” Or something like that, it’s like no,
this is really for everyone because it’s just about having empathy.
Because you know, even people in a position of privilege, maybe a wealthy, white, straight man
in the industry, they too have certain things in their lives that maybe are painful or that make
them feel isolated. And so if you can frame it as creating a more inclusive environment will
include everyone more. Even those people who have traditionally more privilege, we can even
make them feel more included as well.
That’s another way to frame it and I think it can help to bring in a third part to facilitate these
discussions, just because then, there’s someone there who is not involved in the politics of the
company who can help kind of make sure the discussion stays like a safe space, that sort of
thing. That’s another strategy as well.
[0:20:52.4] BOK: Yeah, that makes sense. I was thinking as you were answering that question
that I didn’t mean they kind of you know, being entirely on the responsibility of a person who is
trying to raise an issue to be taking on all of the responsibility for the impacts as well but I read
an article recently, I am not sure when you wrote it actually but an article you wrote about Stack
Overflow and something that stood out of me about that is that you made an effort in the article to acknowledge the fact that it wasn’t like there was a bad side and a good side that there was
things going on for everybody involved in any conversation.
And I think you touched on that there with what you just said as well. It was like empathy is good
for anyone sort of a rising tide raises all boats just by improving our standard of all of these
things will improve everything from products to businesses to teams to the work culture and I
think that tying that back to what you are describing about emotional intelligence would be
interesting and sort of one of the questions I wanted to ask when you described raising those
things within your own team and so on or your own experience there must be points of what you
say I am doing all of these work. I need to stop, look after myself or there’s times when I don’t
want to push or whatever. Is that fair?
[0:22:05.5] AW: Yeah, I think that those are both great points there which is one that when you
want to have the discussions like I don’t find it productive to frame it as calling people out for
example like, “Oh you are a bad person because you said guys,” or something like that but
having more compassion for the person too, who you are trying to confront is important because
I think building bridges between communities is really what I am all about not sort of punishing
Or trying to make people out to be bad because the honest truth is that we all have biases and
we all are suffering as human beings and so I think remembering that can help frame
conversations so that they don’t feel like anyone accusing anyone else but more having a
dialogue. So that is to your first point but to the second, absolutely. Sometimes this stuff is hard
work especially - I am very active on Twitter and I get a lot of pushback on a lot of what I say.
And I get pushback from both sides like when this whole Linus Torvalds thing came out, I was
trying to show compassion for him. I was like, this is great that he is saying these things and it is
great that he wants to change and then I got pushback from people saying, “Oh you are being
too easy on him, you need to be more angry at him.” I am just like, “What? You know, I think
that if he is apologizing for being mean and then we’re mean to him about his apology.” It’s like
the eye for an eye make the whole world blind, right?
And so that’s where I have to step back sometimes and tie it back to my values which is
compassion for everyone. I truly believe in compassion and forgiveness for everyone. That doesn’t excuse everyone’s behavior. It is just I don’t want to carry around that bitterness and
angerness because that will eat away at me. So even people who have mistreated me in the
industry and all of that, I have come at least to a place where I can forgive them because
otherwise it would make me sick to carry around that anger.
And then self-care is important too. I think you are touching on that by saying sometimes you
need to step back and realize hey, I don’t need to have every debate all the time about these
issues because I just can’t keep that up emotionally. It would be toxic to me. I like this metaphor
from a book called the Art of Extreme Self-Care by Cheryl Richardson. She says, “Just because
someone throws a ball doesn’t mean you have to catch it.”
And so I think sometimes especially online I will see someone tweet someone and I will be like,
“No that is not right,” I would want to respond that way and I am like, “You know what April?
That is what their interpreting at this moment and that’s for them and I don’t have to have this
debate right now.”
[0:24:29.9] BOK: One of the things there was people in position of leadership and the
responsibility for a team or something and how important that is, the self-care aspect, I mean
from a leadership point of view, something from my own experience coming straight out of busy
work, rushing around and then jumping straight into something with the team and being able to
do that in a way that doesn’t cause problems or cause conflicts for something very minor like
But how important is this - or is it different, maybe that is a better way to say it, is it different
these kinds of topics, this kind of thinking for those who are in leadership roles?
[0:25:05.8] AW: I think so to a certain extent. I think there is more responsibility there. I think if
you are in a leadership role it’s important that you make sure everyone feels included especially
if you are in a position of power like that. Also that you have educated yourself on things like
unconscious bias because like I mentioned, we all have these biases and it is important to
understand them.
And if you are in a leadership role, you are making decisions that affect people’s careers and
their livelihood and so it is really important that you at least understand your own biases and so I think for leaders it is even more important. But I’ll also mentioned that I consider everyone a
leader because I think we’re all leading our own lives and sometimes we’re leading projects that
work and we can lead conversations even and so I think it is important to - because sometimes I
think technical engineers and stuff will look at management as sort of this separate thing that
they don’t have to worry about.
Because they are on a computer all the time and I think that it is important to remember that
they’re leaders too. We are all leaders because we’re making decisions that other people may
be copying or having conversations where we are influencing others and so I think it is also
useful for us all to consider ourselves leaders.
[0:26:11.7] BOK: Yeah, that is really insightful too. There is so much more I’d like to keep
talking about. But I like to tie the conversation a little bit back to diversity specifically in teams
and diverse teams are stronger teams. You know bringing diverse view points, opinions,
experiences and so on will lead to better products and all of that kind of stuff.
But it also can bring challenges, right? So you’ve got more different viewpoints and therefore -
or is it fair to say that communication and having an emotion intelligence across the team is
harder to do?
[0:26:45.5] AW: Yeah, I think it is. I read an article that said that it is easy to have empathy for
people who are just like you but it is harder to have empathy for people who are not like you. I
think it is because empathy is part of emotional intelligence I think that is a good example.
Where yeah, I think it is harder to be able to consistently grow emotional intelligence. But I think
it might even be more that to do well on a team with diversity and even create a team with more
diversity sustainably the people on the team need to grow their emotional intelligence maybe is
a good way of putting it.
[0:27:17.0] BOK: And so when you say growing emotional intelligence, are you deliberately
choosing the word grow and how does that actually – is there something that you can talk about
how that would actually something I can actively work on myself?
[0:27:29.3] AW: Yeah, absolutely. So you know I mentioned for components like self-awareness, self-management etcetera and those are all full of little sub-skills that you can
absolutely grow by practice. So what I really do with teams is I teach them about emotional
intelligence and we do activities to help grow your emotional intelligence. So a lot of times, it is
just practicing these things. So sometimes it is reframing a situation. It is learning how to move a
conversation from one style to another.
So if you are in a conversation where people are trying to blame each other and accuse each
other of things, you try to shift it instead to a calmer conversation where you are describing what
the impact was to you personally. So I use techniques from non-violent communication as well
which is created by Marshall Rosenberg and it’s this idea that instead of trying to blame people.
And say, “Well you did this and this is wrong.” And all of that instead you frame it in terms of,
“Here is what I observed and here’s how it made me feel. Here is what I’d like to see happen for
this reasons.” Kind of reframing conversations and those are all techniques that you practice
and then you get better at and then it becomes easier. So definitely like I said emotional
intelligence is a set of skills, so you can grow them in the same way that you would grow
anything else.
[0:28:45.3] BOK: We talked a lot about that kind of the giving part I guess, the contributing to
conversations, the raising points, the looking after yourself and so on but one of the things that I
see often as a challenge for example with code reviews or giving feedback is the receiving of
that kind of information as well. Is that something you can talk about?
[0:29:05.4] AW: Yeah, so one thing I talk about is how although in these workshops I teach
people how to give feedback in a constructive way, I also mentioned that not everyone’s had
this training. So some people will give you feedback in a not so constructive way and so one
thing you can do on the receiving end, first of all is to frame it as no matter what kind of
feedback you get it is someone else’s opinion. So start from there so that you don’t take it too
personally. Because it is not like you are bad or you are wrong, it is more somebody else has a
different opinion how you might operate.
So remember that. It’s opinions and feedback are always subjective. And then you can take
what you’ve heard and try to unpack the different components of it. So what is this person observing and then what’s the impact on them and what is going on in their head that makes
them want me to change my behavior, why are they giving me this feedback?
And so really this is where empathy is key because no matter what somebody else is doing and
this is especially true if you are on a diverse team where there is different people who have
different approaches and everything, a lot of times it seems like people are just being weird.
They’re doing weird things that don’t make sense to you. It seems like, why are they doing that?
Why would they do it that way? Even in a code, we talked about a code review. It’s like, that is a
weird way to do that or that is not how I would do it.
And what is key is not framing it as when you receive feedback thinking, “Okay this person, they
gave me this feedback that I don’t really agree with but what’s going on in their head that makes
perfect sense to them.” And so empathy, part of it is constructing a model of what is going on in
the other person’s head and we could never know for sure but just remember that they might
value different things. They have different priorities. Maybe they’ve worked on similar projects
and had bad experiences with some approach or some framework or something and so the key
when you are receiving is to try to construct that model.
So we have already talked about how to understand what is going on in yourself but try to
understand what is going on in another person and then you can make peace with whatever you
hear because you realize, “Oh this makes total sense in their world because this is how they
view things,” you know?
[0:31:11.5] BOK: Is there a process of going from, “I’ve received this feedback and I don’t
understand it or I am trying not to react in the way with a knee jerk reaction but I don’t
understand what is going on in there and so now I need to -” what can happen sometimes is we
can just make assumptions and find that we are making wrong assumptions. Is that part of that
process as well? I mean if that process is too strong but is that something that is worth thinking
[0:31:38.6] AW: Absolutely, yeah. I think active listening sometimes means asking clarifying
questions. So if you are hearing something and it is not making sense to you say, “Could you
explain a little bit more about what you mean by that?” Or, “Could you clarify this point?” Or “When you said this could you say what that meant?” And I think that that’s – or sometimes you
mentioned making assumptions. You can try to make those assumptions but instead of just
assuming them after confirmations you say, “It sounds like you like it if I changed it to this, am I
understanding you correctly?”
So you could ask this clarifying questions or, “It sounds like this upset you.” If it is an emotional
thing that you can say, “It sounds like this upsets you, could you explain? Is that a fair
assumption or is that true?” Or something like that. So there’s clarifying questions that can help
you when you are confused or when you want to make sure that person doesn’t feel like you are
just assuming that you know what is going on with them.
[0:32:29.8] BOK: I might be showing my ignorance here but that sounds like some of the stuff
in NVC, Non violent Communication.
[0:32:34.7] AW: Absolutely. That is a big inspiration for my work. I am a big fan of Marshall
Rosenberg’s work and I would love it if everyone in the tech industry would read and practice
Non violent Communication.
[0:32:46.1] BOK: Is there a beginner’s where somebody says, “Oh I am interested in learning
more about NVC.” Where would you point them to?
[0:32:52.2] AW: Honestly I think the book, I think Non violent Communication, the original book
by Marshall Rosenberg is the best one. I think for the people who don’t read books anymore, I
am sure you could find a summary online, sort of Cliffs Notes type thing but I like the book
because you get to hear it from his mouth and everything like that and I am sure there’s videos
too. I am sure you could find there’s a Non violent Communication center as well that has
resources. But I think the book really is just a classic and I think it is still relevant.
Even in the book he says, non violent communication is also you can call it compassionate
communication and so really it is about how can I engage in a way that is not going to cause
suffering to other people and that’s not going to cause suffering to me. And this is relevant not
just at work and in the tech world but I mean this could heal a lot of the problems in our world
and so I think it is worth a read and giving it a shot, Non violent Communication.
[0:33:45.6] BOK: Confession, it has been on my list for many years now. I actually have to go
and properly read it rather than just the Cliffs Notes. Talking about the receiving feedback thing
and Erica, this is something I’ve always greatly admired many designers is that from clients and
that is we have this thing within the industry I think too much where we mistreat internally and
the internal monologue is mistreating the client.
I think that I see it most clearly when a designer is receiving - because it is so immediately
visual and so important that it gets really aggressive, often, feedback. And April, I am wondering
if there is difference in that dynamic versus what you are describing it for, I was imagining a
scenario within a team where we’re more like peers but as a company or as a person producing
something for a client and getting feedback if there is something - if there is parallels to that?
[0:34:40.1] AW: Yeah, I think that the power dynamics do come into play there. When you feel
like somebody is paying you for this work and directly and whatnot, you may not feel - but I think
the non violent communication techniques would still work. You still want to – the goal there is
unpack what the person is looking for. So when you get that really harsh feedback to try to
unpack it and understand it and as far as the internal understanding of thinking about the client
and maybe a negative terms.
I think that it is good to reframe that as well because I think thinking of, “Oh my god it is such a
difficult client.” And if you feel bitterness and resentment I feel like that mainly hurts you not the
other person. And so I think being able to think, “They are just trying to get the best work and
they are probably not deliberately trying to take advantage of me.” I mean some are but I think it
is better to assume positive intent, rather than make yourself sick with assuming negative intent.
And so I think a lot of the same techniques work. And I try to do although there are power
dynamics involved and maybe this is just me and I am an entrepreneur and I really don’t like
hierarchies or anything like that. I just think of everybody the same, I talk the same to the CEOs
I work with and individual contributors. To me I don’t really care and if someone like how I am
doing part of my self-care is if I am living according to my core values.
If somebody doesn’t like that then it is also fair to me to leave that situation. And so I think that
that’s element of self-compassion that I think is important.
[0:36:22.6] EQ: It is interesting that you brought up how we can tend to talk as a team behind
that client’s back if we don’t like them and that does get really toxic. I guess I have always
viewed it as a steam blowing thing, I’m an oral processor. So sometimes I need to process
things and then I move on. But I can see how that could wind up and be a negative thing.
What I also find hard with clients is they don’t know how to communicate what they mean when
they are giving non-constructive feedback. Trying to learn how to ask the right questions to
guide the discussions, I just find that completely challenging.
So I don’t know. I haven’t read Nonviolent Communication either so I would be interested to
know if I could pick up some tips for even something like that and how to direct a conversation
more beneficially.
[0:37:09.0] AW: That’s a good one and another good one is a Difficult Conversations it has four
different authors and I don’t remember all of them but it is a good one too, Difficult
Conversations and they include specific examples of somebody preparing a presentation for the
boss and then the boss isn’t happy or something and how to reframe those conversations and
what not. So I think that’s another good one to recommend.
But it really comes down - and you are right, sometimes we do blow off steam and vent and I
think it is just a matter of who you do that to and then how often you do it because I sometimes
might talk, share, commit messages from Git Hub where people say, “Oh this is for the idiot user
or stupid user, blah-blah-blah.”
And I think sometimes if we think of our and this time we’re talking about clients but it is a similar
thing because for engineers they think, “Oh this is for that stupid user,” whatever. I think that
that’s really a negative, toxic way to think about before building for, right? Because in theory, we
are trying to help them that is why we are doing our work whether the clients or users or
whatever but I think asking and clarifying questions like you mentioned, some people – one
thing about feedback I think is worth mentioning that I didn’t really touched on is that and this
comes from a podcast that I listen to called ‘Hurry Slowly’.
And the person who is doing it said when you are giving feedback, have in mind what you want
to achieve because if you are just saying, “Well this is ugly,” no one wants to hear that. That is not really helping anyone and so she gave the example that someone just criticized her voice.
They said, “I don’t like the sound of your voice,” and it’s like, “Okay I can’t really – do you really
think I could go out and get voice coaching lessons to change that just for you?”
It’s like what do you expect to happen and so I think if you don’t get that in the feedback, if you
are receiving it and you don’t get that action item that is where it’s good to ask for clarifying
questions like try to unpack that a bit more even if the only action item is having a conversation
about this redesign or whatever it may be.
[0:39:01.7] BOK: Like I said once before, there is so much more and this conversation could go
on forever. But we are running out of time.
April there is one last thing I would love to try and leave our listeners with and that is you
mentioned in one of your talks this idea of a run book or maybe that’s not the thing you would
pick but if you are going to leave us with one sort of small little thing that we can do in terms of
growing emotional intelligence or developing this area of the catalytic skills, what would you
leave us with?
[0:39:30.9] AW: So yeah and that run book I think I would use the first step which is slow down.
I think in the tech industry and just in our modern world, we’re so busy being busy and so I think
that that is what keeps us from taking care of ourselves and there’s that saying you can’t pour
from an empty cup. So if we are not taking care of ourselves we can’t take care of others and so
I think slowing down to take care of yourself but also to reflect and think about the other people
and your environment.
I think if we’re moving quickly we are likely to be aggressive and if we slow down, we’re giving a
chance for compassion to grow. So I think that would be my biggest tip is to slow down, do
some reflection, this might be journaling, it might just be meditation but just do something in
your life where you take some time and slow down and it will actually save you time in the long
run because you’ll become more effective.
[0:40:21.5] BOK: Thank you, April, so much. I really appreciate your time today.
[0:40:24.7] AW: Thank you likewise, this was really great.
[0:40:26.1] BOK: Awesome and thanks again Erica.
[0:40:27.9] EQ: Thank you.
[0:40:29.0] BOK: We’ll see you again next week, thanks everybody.
[0:40:36.8] BOK: You can get all the links and notes from this episode on
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