The title of this post references the iconic phrase from the London Underground, “Mind the gap.” It’s used to warn passengers about the gap between the train and the station platform.  Although hazardous, the gap for these travelers is a natural part of the journey.

This post is about another travel hazard, one that I think is part of the growing professional’s journey.  It also happens to be a “gap” of sorts, though not a physical one.  I’d like to share some background on the empathy gap and three ways to stay mindful of it.

To paraphrase the definition from Wikipedia, the empathy gap is a cognitive bias that makes it difficult for people to see how differences in mental states can affect the way that they think and make decisions.  The “gap” refers to the divide between you and someone who you should be able to relate to because you were once in their shoes only you may have forgotten what it feels like to be them.

We’re biased toward our current mental state.  It’s hard not to be.  If we’re not careful, however, we can get stuck in our biases and let them affect the messages we send to others.

Me, myself, and the empathy gap

So, what got me thinking about all this?  I am about 8 months into my journey as a software engineer and I sense that I am not the same engineer that I was when I first started.

Where I once was not sure how to fit in, I now feel part of a team.  Where I once questioned my non-traditional background in software, I now have foundational experiences on which my understanding of this craft becomes stronger every day.  Where I once was particularly conscious of being new to the industry, I am now helping other new people ramp up on the team.

My mental state has changed.  And it’s only been a matter of months - what’s going to happen months from now and in the years that will follow that?

Whatever happens, I plan to be wary of the empathy gap that forms between me and people starting out.  Why is that?  I’d like to never stop growing and learning and staying connected to new people is a great way to keep from becoming complacent and stagnating.  Helping others level up isn’t too bad a reason either.

The thing is, preventing the empathy gap is pretty difficult.  As we go through life overcoming tough challenges and encountering new ones, our mental states will change.  Once that happens, the cognitive bias will settle in and it can be a tough thing to break.

On the other side. Photo by Kristopher Roller.

I’ve observed how hard it is to prevent the empathy gap in my experiences as a first-time parent.  The first few months as a new parent are rather crazy - lack of sleep, baby crying inconsolably, life in major disarray, and so on.  My wife and I swore we’d never forget those times.  

If we ever came across any new parents, we resolved that we’d be more helpful to them than just saying, “Give it time, you’ll figure it out”.  On the surface, advice like that may sound encouraging but without also connecting over shared experiences, it doesn’t go very far.

Time goes by, however, and things change.  Our son is now one and a half and he sleeps more, he cries less, and he smiles, laughs, and plays.  Our mental states have changed.  We are no longer zombies.  In fact, we have other problems now that he can run, talk back, and throw tantrums.  These are prime conditions for a “first-time parent” empathy gap.

If a new parent came to me today asking for advice, I would have to fight the inclination to say “Just give it time...” or “Enjoy them while they can’t walk and talk…” and put effort into actually getting on their level and relating to them.

To be most helpful, I would have to cross the empathy gap.

Now that we’ve looked at a couple of examples from my life, let’s talk about some ways to be mindful of the empathy gap.  Although I’m not sure it’s possible to prevent the empathy gap, here are a few techniques I plan on using to make sure that whatever gap that does form is not one too difficult to cross.

Increase awareness

Simply knowing about the empathy gap and considering it in your interactions with others will help you cross it quickly.  

This article gives an interesting example of how awareness can make a huge difference.  The article describes an experiment where some of the participants were informed of another cognitive bias known as the illusion of transparency.  According to Wikipedia, it’s a tendency to overestimate the degree to which your mental state is known by others.

Have you ever done any public speaking?  Did it feel like everyone could just see right through you and know how nervous you were?  Then you experienced the illusion of transparency.

In the experiment, participants were asked to give a public talk.  Before their talk, some participants were informed about the illusion of transparency while the control group was not.  The participants that were aware of the cognitive bias went on to give a more composed and coherent talk than the control group.   Simply being aware of the cognitive bias allowed the participants to mitigate the negative effects of it.

Consider the empathy gap in your next interaction with someone and see if just being aware of it leads to a more productive conversation.

Decrease dependence on subjective memory

Documenting your experiences in some kind of blog or journal might help you cross the empathy gap more easily.  Looking back on these records will help you recall what it was actually like to go through an experience rather than what you remember it to be like.

There was an interesting experiment done that demonstrated the role that our memories and their subjective nature could have in causing empathy gaps.  In the experiment, university students were asked to demand a certain amount of money in exchange for immersing their hand in painfully cold water.  Students who had just experienced the immersion demanded more money than students who had experienced the immersion before but less recently.

Sometimes we remember the experiences of our past in a more positive light than when we were actually going through the experience.

I recall what it was like when I was first learning to program because I blogged about it and have re-read those posts.  It was tough and many hours were spent wrestling with concepts that are second nature today.

Without records, it would easy for my future, more experienced self to think things like “life was easy back then when I was just learning the basics” or “I learned JavaScript promises and I don’t remember it being too bad, I don’t think you should have much trouble with it either.”

Thoughts like those, however, backed by a heavy dependence on subjective memory, are the stuff of empathy gaps.

Consider documenting your experiences in a blog or journal of some kind.  The records you keep could help you cross the empathy gap.  If made public, the same records could help new people who come across them learn how to gain experience for themselves.

Teach others what you know (constantly)

To be a good teacher, you have to cross the empathy gap.  That’s because the best learning happens when the person learning finds meaning in what is being taught to them.  This would require you as the teacher to teach a concept in a way that is most helpful to the one learning and not necessarily in the way that you learned it yourself.

Teaching isn’t easy - you have to both understand the concept well enough and understand your audience well enough to help them learn.  If done well, it’s the most difficult and - not surprisingly - the most effective way to make the empathy gap a thing that feels natural to cross as if you were just stepping off the station platform and onto the train like a seasoned passenger at the London Underground.

Conclusion

As I grow as a software engineer, I plan to never become complacent in my experience by isolating myself on the far side of an empathy gap.  Staying aware of it, documenting my experiences as I grow, and teaching others what I know are a few ways I plan on “minding” the gap.

If you enjoyed this topic, consider reading up on the other kinds of empathy gaps out there such as the one that exists between you and your future self.  Thanks for reading!


Originally posted on blog.kalalau-cantrell.com.

Cover photo by Jeff Fenton.