I facilitated our team retrospective this morning. I felt like we made a little forward progress, but not as much as I would have liked. But it really brought one thing to the forefront of my thoughts today — empathy gained through communication.

We have a pretty large team by Agile standards — we had 20 people in our retro: 16 developers, 3 QA folks, and 1 manager. Out of those, only about 5 or 6 speak up regularly. I recently sent out a survey to the team, trying to get feedback on how we could improve our retros. A couple of the questions tried to get a feel for why people aren’t speaking up more. Only about half the people responded, and the answers didn’t really answer my question as well as I had hoped.

So on Amos‘s suggestion, we did the Safety Check exercise. We got a good set of answers to why people don’t feel safe. About half of the answers were about the fear of looking stupid in front of other people. About half of those mentioned the manager — they’re worried they might get in trouble for what they say. We talked some about fear and how it’s more often than not misplaced. And that the worst consequences are usually not as bad as you might think. But then we got to the crux of the problem — there’s not enough trust amongst the team, and especially between the team members and the manager.

About half of our team is new (within the past 6 months) — including the manager. While the developers have made some good progress building trust amongst each other, we haven’t had as much time with the manager to build trust between him and the rest of the team. So the lack of trust isn’t at all surprising.

Honestly, I already knew we had trust issues, and wanted to address them, but needed a way to lead the team to that same realization. With this exercise driving out the issue, we were then able to have a conversation about trust. The conversation was pretty good. We got more voices to contribute than probably any other topic we’d previously covered. (I was disappointed that the manager kept quiet though. I later found that he was trying to mitigate people’s fears by keeping quiet, but I urged him to contribute more in the future.)

But one point really stood out in my mind — a point of view that I hadn’t previously thought much about. Lauren, one of our QA analysts, pointed out that most human communication is non-verbal. We give tons of cues via body language, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, even posture. I don’t recall if Lauren said it explicitly, but she pointed out that these cues build empathy between the speakers. She encouraged us to use more voice chat and video chat, as opposed to IRC text chat, because it would create more empathy between the people communicating, which would lead to more trust.

I spent most of the rest of the day talking to people on the phone or via Google Hangouts voice. And every single time, I consciously noticed that I was gaining empathy for the person I was speaking with. I assume (and hope) that that’s working both ways. I suppose that it’s always been happening, but I never really noticed it.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about empathy among Agile practitioners lately. It’s been mentioned on the Ruby Rogues podcast, and Angela Harms has been preaching it for years. I already understood how important it is. But until today, I didn’t really feel it happening.

So if you’re looking to build trust with someone, spend some time talking with them. Preferably in person, but if that’s not possible, seriously consider video or voice modes of communication, instead of sending an email or an instant message.


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