Speaker spotlight: communicating empathetically with Sharon Steed

How did you become an empathy consultant, and what does your work involve?
Consulting came as a natural extension from speaking at conferences. Much of my work revolves around speaking at events (either public conferences or in-house at companies) and one-on-one “coaching” sessions. I’ve recently started facilitating half- and full-day workshops centred around my LinkedIn Learning course Communicating with Empathy.

What’s the main reason clients turn to you for help?
Asking the hard questions; having the hard conversations; and working on their delivery. I work with people that are often considered (to put it mildly) difficult to work with because of their personalities. They approach all interactions with people in a very forward, sometimes aggressive way. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are jerks; most of the time, they just want to get to the point. What I do is help them reframe their approach to those people interactions, so the conversation can be more pleasant on both ends and, as a result, more productive.

What kind of problems do you see when you consult with tech companies?
I can’t count how many time hiring managers or founders or higher-level decision makers have complained about finding the perfect dev, and not being able to put them in front of a client because they don’t trust their ability to communicate. That’s a big one. I’ve also seen a lot of the “us against them” mentality when it comes to technical departments “verses” non-technical departments.

How can teams collaborate better?
When you think of the hallmarks of the most collaborative teams, what are you most struck by their ability to do? Most likely, it’s two things: their willingness to share information and how effectively they communicate with each other. Those two are major, but I also like to add this: if you can work out how to rebound from communication failures before things devolve into a larger issue, your team will never have collaboration problems.

How can we improve design critiques?
I’m a huge proponent of pairing critiques with praise. You want to look at their contribution to the project as a whole and talk about what they did well. This is important because it helps them see that other people view their work as valuable to the team success. When it’s time to talk about the specific reason of improvement, ask them about their thought process behind their work. That way, you can see where exactly they went “wrong” and use the moment to teach.

A quick note on praise: I’m talking about genuinely highlighting what someone has done well. We often dole out empty compliments for our own personal gain or to “keep the peace.” It may put a bandaid on an uncomfortable work environment for the time being, but they don’t help situations in the long term. And honestly they’re detrimental to team success, and really have no place in the office or anywhere else in your life.

How can we communicate ideas in a way that forces people to listen?
Speak to people in their language, and occasionally address them by name during the conversation. If your listener doesn’t understand your point or feels that you’re don’t “get” them, you’ll lose them. Throwing their name in there is purely a vanity thing; there are few things people love more than hearing others say their name.

What is ‘affective management’?
Quite simply, it’s managing with affect. Managers need to remember that through all of the stuff that needs to get done, they’re leading human beings. One size does not fit all. If you manage each individual the way they specifically need to be, you’ll avoid a lot of the smaller communication and relationship issues that pop up often.

What are the biggest obstacles to better diversity in tech right now?
Hiring for a diverse team is actually pretty simple. The problems arise when the environments aren’t designed to be inclusive ones. Retaining diverse talent on teams means making sure that those who are literally and figuratively in the minority feel like they’re a valuable contributor to that team. How do you do that? You can’t change the way people think, but you can dictate how they communicate with one another.

Language is a huge barrier to diversity — not everyone wants to be a ninja, rock star or wizard. Clean up the exclusive language that happens often on teams (especially technically focused and monochromatic ones) will make more people feel welcome. Also, take a hard look at your culture. Specifically, the perks. Who is intentionally staying to the side during that foosball tournament? Which of your team members aren’t drinking the PBR? Ever ask them why? Now would be a good time to do that.

I’m black and a female, and I’m almost always the only person that looks like me at the events I speak at. I personally love the vibe in tech, but I can absolutely see why women and people of colour stay away. Your office isn’t a frat house or your boyhood fantasy come to life. Stop making it look and feel that way.

Public speaking can be hard but I imagine it can be even harder for someone who stutters. How did you get into public speaking, and what kind of strategies have you got in place to cope with the nerves?
This is a bit of an interesting story. I initially pursued public speaking opportunities at the advice of a speech therapist I was seeing at the time. In speech therapy for stuttering, the vast majority of it will be based around two things: making stuttering easier and being more comfortable with the way you talk. So I’d already learned all the techniques that make it easier to physically say words, but she really harped home that those things won’t work if I’m not okay with stuttering. She had spoken to a few graduate seminars and podcasts on stuttering, and she suggested I do the same as a way to face the fear. I did those, then an ignite talk and from there everything took off.

In terms of coping with nerves, I’ve tried a bunch of different day-of strategies to help with them. I generally don’t drink coffee before any of my talks because they make your body tenser. I’ve also found that sitting in the room of the talk before yours to get the vibe of the crowd makes the whole experience less scary. Honestly, though, nerves are a part of the game. If I’m not nervous before a talk, I usually don’t feel great about how it went after.

What can people expect to take away from your Pixel Pioneers Belfast talk?
How individuals can create a better team environment.

Sharon will also run a half-day interactive workshop on improving team communication, collaboration and inclusion through empathy in Belfast on 20 November. Tickets are just £99.