Why Situational Empathy Is a Challenge for IT Pros

By Marc J. Schiller

What’s the biggest problem that business folks report about working with IT? It usually sounds something like:

  • “He just doesn’t get it.”
  • “It’s pulling teeth to get the information I actually need.”
  • “He only ever talks about tech stuff.”

The specific wording doesn’t really matter. These complaints point to the same problem: the inability of IT pros to connect on an interpersonal level and have a meaningful, relevant discussion from the business person’s perspective.

Why Is This?

The universally accepted explanation for this behavior is:

  1. IT pros get caught up in the nuts-and-bolts of the solution they are working on and lose the ability to communicate about anything but their issues.
  2. IT pros are focused on the technical solution, not the soft communication issues surrounding the problem they are trying to solve.
  3. IT people, by definition (see #1 and #2), are unable to hear how their words sound, or understand how their work style feels, to the people they serve.

Clearly, IT pros are well-meaning. But there’s just something lacking, and that “something” always seems to relate to an inability concerning interpersonal communication. The official term for this condition is a lack of empathy. I know, it sounds harsh.

When I say IT pros lack empathy, I don’t mean they’re uncaring or can’t feel for another person. Rather, I’m talking about a specific type of empathy that’s missing; it’s often referred to as situational empathy.

Situational empathy is just a fancy term used to describe the ability to enter a situation with another person and engage with them with a near-gut-level understanding of where that person is coming from—even if both individuals have vastly different backgrounds and life experiences.

Why IT Pros Lack Situational Empathy

There may indeed be a basic predisposition toward the technical among IT pros. Geeks who are into math and computer science are going to orient more toward mastering the technical, instead of communication, proficiencies.

And that basic predisposition is compounded by the educational curriculum and professional pathway IT pros follow in their careers. As IT pros earn their undergraduate degrees and more, they follow an educational path of tech, tech and more tech. The IT curriculum focuses on math, algorithms and computer systems. It’s all heads-down scientific thinking.

Then the IT pros graduate, and along comes real life—and they have to work with real people. All of a sudden, their great technical skills, which are helpful when they’re building the solutions or diagnosing software problems, aren’t quite enough. Speaking code as a second language just won’t help much in a meeting where an IT pro has to figure out what his or her users and stakeholders need from a business perspective.

Let’s contrast this typical IT pro situation with that of all those newly minted MBAs, complete with liberal arts backgrounds, who go to work in the marketing department. They seem to have little trouble fitting in, communicating with ad agencies, and, in short order, leaning on IT about problematic systems. Why aren’t our liberal arts-educated colleagues plagued with the same real-world challenges that IT professionals face?

It’s All About Education

The liberal arts educational method looks very different than what we see in IT. Unlike IT courses, liberal arts courses are largely perspective-based work. Whether students are learning sociology, anthropology, journalism or literature, nearly every area of liberal arts study revolves around putting the student in the head and heart of people different than them, over and over again.

Of course, there is a technical and scientific element to every liberal arts subject. Medieval literature majors analyze Chaucer’s characters. Anthropologists diagram societal structures. But liberal arts students don’t start class with a technical approach. Instead, the first thing they do is sit down and read. Literature. Journal entries. Ethnographies. The student first digs into the lived reality of the people they’re studying, and then the student applies a technical framework to gain a greater perspective on these people.

In the process of earning their degree, the liberal arts student both learns a core subject area, and, perhaps more importantly, they develop a capacity to empathize with the unique situations of others.

There are a million jokes on the Internet about liberal arts majors being unemployable, but they are the ones learning the crucial skill of situational empathy, a skill that many IT people desperately need.

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