Creating Inclusive Cultures with Empathy

Presented by Sharon Steed at IT Matters Conference ONLINE

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These transcripts were generated by a machine and checked-over by a human for accuracy. Still, there may be small errors. If you spot any, please feel free to submit a pull request with amendments.

This is a word that for a really long time sort of encompassed everything about who I was, you know, I am a person who stutters, and it's, um, it really impacted my life in a way and in every way that anything that you could describe yourself could. I spent a lot of time just being very embarrassed about speaking, incredibly ashamed about the way I sounded. And it shaped how I view and approach communication, in a way that for years and years was not productive, it wasn't positive. And so you know, after, you know, all this time of, of, of trying to who, to hide who I was, you know, I, I sort of figured out that, you know, I'm not a bad person, as a result of having a speech impediment, however, I am a little bit different. And as a result of having this sort of situation like that is outside of the norm, I knew that I was going to have to make some changes.

But before I get into that, I want to talk about a little bit about my journey to get here as a person who speaks about stuttering all over the world. Um, so this is me, when I was around four years old. I know, I know, adorable. And this is around the age that my parents said, they began to see signs of some sort of speech impediment, but it's actually really normal to have kids who are between the ages three to five, have a speech impediment. And the vast majority of them, they just outgrow it, by the time they hit first or second grade. Well, as time continued to go on, it became incredibly clear that, you know, I wasn't going to grow out of this. And this was going to be, excuse me, a part of my life, sorry.

And so, as a result of just being really insecure about how I talked, and now it took me a little bit longer to say things. Now, I began to develop these little speech, neuroses, you know, there are sounds, you know, ends and M's and P's and T's that were, where I have a little bit of a problem, you know, saying things occasionally. And so, you know, I would begin to avoid all of the words that I felt really uncomfortable saying. And, another thing that I would do is, I would just, you know, avoid conversations that, you know, I wasn't totally comfortable having, because I didn't know if I was going to be able to be fluent or not.

And so, you know, over time, I got a little bit older, and you know, things get a little bit harder in school, you have to spend more time reading, you spend more time talking and doing presentations, you know, I began to just get a lot more and more afraid of talking and more angry, that, you know, I had to deal with this speech impediment, you know, why did I have to be so different in a really bad way? And so, you know, I went through life, I went through high school, I went through college, I got out into the workforce.

And, you know, I just thought and well, I hoped that by the time I hit, you know, my adulthood of 22, or 23, or 24, that I would just be so comfortable that I wouldn't stutter anymore because I would be a grown up and it's not a big deal. And that isn't what happened. I spent a lot of my 20s being afraid to really pursue that, you know, kinds of work that I knew was going to make me feel, you know, really happy work that I was passionate about. Because I was too afraid to just go out there and to try to get the kinds of jobs that would lead to that work. And so I finally sort of came to a point in my life when I knew that, okay, like, if I keep going this route, I'm never going to be happy, I'm never going to have really great real patient ships with my parents or with my friends or with, you know, other family members, or even, or especially with a significant other.

And so, um, I decided that I had to sort of face this fear of talking head on, and that's what I chose to pursue public speaking. Now, I'm not saying that I was pursuing public speaking as a way to like, find a new career and travel the world and be a consultant and work with really amazing companies. Because that was so far beyond what I thought was possible for me. Again, I'm a person who stutters, I'm from Illinois and smack dab in the middle of USA, that's just not what you do. You know. But, you know, as I was giving that first talk, I realise that, you know, one, I can do this, I can speak, and it's okay, if it takes me a little bit longer to, you know, say things one, and two, people actually wanted to hear me, you know, I had information that could help people.

And those two things had never dawned on me before, until I began to pursue public speaking. And so now, several years later, I, I have my own consultancy, it's called Communilogue. And I work with companies, conferences, and organisations on, you know, improving team communication, collaboration and inclusion, you know, through engaging in empathy.

I also give talks at companies and conferences, all over the world. And stuttering, it turns out that thing that was, you know, so overwhelmingly shameful, and that, you know, forced me to be quiet for so long, it's actually the thing that is the most important component of teaching people like, you know, one, how to properly engage empathy, and two, you know, how to create a culture of inclusion, anywhere that you go. So, that's what I'm here to talk about is, you know, engaging empathy in a way to create a more inclusive culture. And so, you know, the goal here is to teach you to create a culture of inclusion at your company, or just on your team or just in your life, you know, with the proper is empathy. actions. So, I'm at the beginning of, you know, every talk I give, I like to set some expectations and, you know, just explain some deliverables. And so, you know, the first thing I say is that, you know, I want you to be able to define empathy on your own terms, in order to really you know, have empathy for other people and to you know, engage empathy and an actionable way, you have to first identify what empathy, you know, means looks and feels like to you.

Um, I want to, I want you to be able to, you know, be in the proper mindset to truly engage in empathy. You know, we live in a very fast paced world where we don't often, you know, take a second to, you know, feel.

And so I want you to be able to happen to those emotions that are going to, you know, excuse me, help you to really connect with those around you as quickly as possible. And, you know, finally, you know, I'm not going to teach you anything that you don't already know, you know, a lot of these concepts that we are talking about are things that, you know, you learn way back, and, you know, when you are, you know, three and four and five, you know, my whole goal here is to sort of, you know, is to, is to reframe these very basic ideas, and repackage them into proper actionable steps that you can use in the office every day, as a way to just boost the environment, and, you know, make everyone around you feel included and feel like they belong.

So let's begin, in order to, you know, engage in with the, we first need to talk about, you know, what empathy is, and so, you know, the definition that I hear a lot, and it is the dictionary definition is the ability to, you know, understand and share the feelings of another person. And, you know, I think that that's a great definition, it explains it well. But the problem is that, you know, it doesn't give you any sort of action items, it doesn't tell you, here's what you have to do. And that's because, you know, empathy as a noun is an idea, it is intangible, it doesn't, you know, have any real meaning until you give it, you know, some sort of directive. And so, um, you know, over the course of the years, as I was giving these talks and talking about this, you know, I knew that I had to figure out, you know, how I could explain this very abstract concepts, right.

And so, I thought, What's a similar concept that, you know, everybody knows, and everybody understands, but nobody gets and then it came to me that concepts is love. Oh, so brand new love is exciting. You think you can do absolutely anything because this person is in your life you write ridiculously embarrassingly dumb text messages. I don't know who has time to do all of this. We nobody has time for this. Well, I guess no. in quarantine, we all have time for a lot of stuff we didn't think we did. And so you write long text messages about how these are, this is the best person ever. You have to show people when we could go places at least here in America, we're still not supposed to be going places. How much you love them. By doing really, really regrettable things like wearing matching denim outfits, you know.

But that new love is just the most magnificent feeling ever. You you meet a person and you just connect and you can't explain it. You just love them. And you want to be with them all the time. And you would i would do anything for love, but I won't do that. Good one. But yeah, but you would do anything for love anything for this person, even though you don't really know them all that well. And you just met them and you're like, I love them. Why? Amazing. And then you know, as time goes on a little bit you you sort of fall into more of a routine. You get to know this person. You guys come into a more sort of a real life, you know, day to day existence. And so all of these warm and fuzzies that you felt at the beginning. It kind of turns into, you know, life. And I love this tweet because this is definitely something that I say to my husband a time or two. And so you know, in the beginning, brand new love is just a magnificent again, it is beautiful, you're on cloud nine, cloud 99. But then after a while you realise that, you know, it's, it's, it's not just about how you feel and how you make another person feel, it's about, you know, choosing to love this person every day, right? So love as a noun is an idea, it's a beautiful idea, it is, quite possibly, arguably the best idea, but it is intangible. And it doesn't have any meaning. Until you give it meaning.

And that's why love as a verb is a choice. And it's a choice that you have to make every single day, it's also a choice that is between you know, you and this other person that you are, you know, engaging in this relationship with, this could be a spouse, this could be a partner, this could be your, you know, like parents, this could be your friends. This could be anybody, right? You know, not every single person is going to feel loved, with the same things that other people will feel loved by right example, as for some, you know, people, they feel a lot more love, if they are able to, you know, just talk about their problems, and be very vulnerable. And, and, and, and, you know, explain how they feel, you know, other people are going to feel loved, if, you know, you just spend time with them. And just, you know, like, give them a place to sort of, you know, just forget everything, right? Love is how you define it, how you and your partner, or, or spouse or friend or parent or whoever it is, it's how you define it.

So let's bring this back to empathy. You know, empathy as a noun is an idea is a great idea. But it's completely intangible, and it doesn't have any sort of power and its punch until you, you, you know, define, you know, what that empathy is going to look and feel like for you. And that's why empathy as a verb is a choice. And it's a choice that you need to make with your coworkers and with your managers and your direct reports, you know, and your team as a whole. And when you you know, choose empathy, when you define empathy, you are going to create or be on, on a very quick path to creating an incredible culture on your team.

So let's talk about culture for a moment. And I want to say just a little bit more about this course that I made for LinkedIn, I promise is not a shameless plug, and it's a story but if you want to watch it, it is free. Shameless plug.

So I made this course, it's called communicating with empathy. And if you kind of see this, you know, finished product, it's amazing. It's incredibly professional and you like they really, you know, work with very like, like, like, hollywood type people. And so everything looks clean, it looks very much like, you know, you know, what you're talking about, and it's incredible. I mean, you know, they like, fly you out to Southern California, you're like, on the beach, there's palm trees, the weather is amazing. They created your like my own set, and it was just for me, and it was awesome. I had like this professional, you know, hair and makeup person come in and make me look beautiful. And you guys, you guys, I felt like Beyonce, All right. I thought I was doing it. Um, and so I was so hyped up, I was ready to go I was ready to create the most amazing course that LinkedIn learning has ever seen.

And the day one happened and I saw a teleprompter and so as a person who stutters something that you become very comfortable or very familiar with With is this whole idea of having to read out loud, and how it is the worst possible thing you could ask me to do. So I spent like most of my school aged years, being terrified of having to stand up and read that paragraph in school, because every single day, and almost every single class, you have to stand up and read. And, you know, a lot of the American schools and I just, it always felt really uncomfortable for me, because I could never get through, even like a couple of words with any sort of fluency. Oh, I was always struggling to get, you know, certain words and phrases out. And so, you know, I thought all these years later, you know, I'm, I'm amazing, I've travelled the world, I've given talks at big companies, and I can read a little teleprompter. Wrong. The first day, they put this up, and then show me the teleprompter was terrible, but it was the first day you know, you were uncomfortable. By day two, it was so bad that like, I could not get through like two or three words, without stuttering so much that they couldn't put out the product I was trying to create.

I remember sort of going back to my hotel, and just crying, because I had worked, you know, so hard on trying to, you know, write, you know, these incredible scripts, and I was always like, agreeable, like, it's gonna be fine, I can do this. And it was very clear that you know, what, I'm probably not going to be able to do this. And I was, I was really discouraged. And I was really depressed. Um, I remember being on the phone with my husband and saying, like, I don't think this is gonna happen, I don't think I can do this. And I, I've already spent the advance, like, I need this money, I need this to work. And so you know, on the third day, when I came back to set I sort of, you know, had this idea that...

There's my mom in the background. Well, she is, I'm at my parents house. So this is a, this is, this is what's going on. They say Hi, mom. Well, I'm at my parents house, you know, anything can happen, you know, in the world of Corona, this is what could happen.

So, you know, on the third day, I came back to set and I said, Okay, look, I have an idea. I would like to try this. And so I said, you know, can you guys just not be in the room, is there a way that it could just be me and the camera and like, all of the lights, like, if I'm by myself, I would probably feel just a little bit more comfortable and a little bit more relaxed enough to just be a little bit more fluent. And they said, Sure. And so everybody left the room when they set it up. So I was able to, you know, be by myself in the room. And, lo and behold, I was able to sort of get through, you know, all of the scripts with enough fluency to really to, to, you know, create a product that they can actually, you know, use.

Um, and, you know, I kind of, I look at that whole situation, I think, Okay, one, I probably should have been just a little bit more upfront with them about, like, the worst case scenario, and, you know, that's on me, I thought that it would be fine. But I didn't tell them, it could not be fine. And then I get there, and everybody's really shocked and everybody's really disappointed. You know, I was a part of the reason why the entire culture of that experience was really bad. But then halfway through, I was able to, you know, identify exactly what the problem was. And then it's, you know, pivoting you know, how do I work within this space in this in environment on this team and be as productive as possible. And so then, you know, I was able to say, Okay, look, here's what I can do to make this whole experience better.

So, a recap here, I destroyed the culture by basically lying to them. And then after I realised I was in over my head, I pivoted, and I was able to change the culture, just as a result of being, you know, very vulnerable and like asking, you know, like, hey, like, how can I work better in this situation? And so that brings me to, you know, what is culture.

And so I found this definition, I believe this is from the Harvard Business Review. And they defined it as the shared values, attitudes, standards and beliefs that characterise the members of an organisation and define its nature. And so when I see this, I see sort of two different sub definitions. And so the first one that I want to talk about is the shared values, attitudes, standards, and beliefs. And if you sort of, you know, see those four words, they're all kind of circling around this same idea of, you know, that being the experience that people are having, when they're interacting with you, as well as your company.

And so if you go back to my experience with LinkedIn, you know, the experience that they were having with me, on those first two days was terrible, but that was because I wasn't actually being easy to work with, in my quest to be this, like, Yes, I'll do anything, this is going to be great, I'm going to work really hard, and everything will be all sunshine and roses. I mean, you know, like not saying, but, hey, here's what could actually happen as well, you know, me, you know, not being transparent. It almost destroyed the experience that everybody else on my team was having, as a result of my behaviour.

So the other aspect of this definition is that second half, and that is defined as, it's nature, you know, culture defines you, but it doesn't define you and, you know, all the ways that you necessarily think, you know, for me, one second, I have a cold of some sort that won't, I promise, it is not Corona, it is allergies, but I've been coughing a lot. So I need a water break real quick.

So, you know, you can't - culture defines you. However, if you, you know, create a good community, and culture really is going to take care of itself. And that's why culture cannot exist without first creating a good community. And so, community as is defined is, you know, a, a spelling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing, you know, common attitudes, interest, as well as goals. And so, I just wanted to give you just a few examples of, you know, companies organisations that have created, that communities inside of their walls, that have really defined their cultures outside of their walls.

And so, here are a few you know. If you if you think of TED, it's, you know, ideas worth spreading and so the, the community that they have built inside of TED is that you know, they are going to invite the you know, the the most you know, fascinating or the you know, smartest or the the funniest or the weirdest whoever speakers from all over the world. They're going Create a tonne of events again, all over the world and just have them share stories like that are ones that, you know, one educate and then two uplift. And so as a result of creating that sort of community, the culture of TED is that of positivity is that of learning, and is that of choice truth, which in the world that we are in today, you know, it's very hard to find just the truth. And TED, I think, really embodies like, Hey, you know, we are going to tell you stories that are informative, that are inspiring, and that are true.

And then if you look at a company like Microsoft, you know, their CEO, Satya Nadella, you know, he thrives on his empathy. And so just how he, you know, approaches his team, how he approaches, being a leader, and a manager of people is, you know, through or has the foundation of being incredibly empathic. And so, as a result, the culture there that, you know, all of us hear about is a positive one.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have a company like Uber, I don't want to kick them or anything, like while down, but we all know, you know, like, how bad things were at Uber for a while. And so, you know, the actions of just a few people or however many people inside of that community, it turned the culture, it's just one of overall bad.

So the big things are going to define your culture, right. But the, but the small things that, you know, little, everyday actions are going to create your culture. And so it's the small things, those, you know, everyday actions are going to help you either improve your culture or completely destroy it. And so how do you do that? Right? Like, what are those small, everyday actions that are going to help you to one, build a great community, and two, define a culture of all of the good things that you want your culture to be known for.

And that's with empathy. So, you know, I talked a lot at the beginning of his talk about, you know, engaging empathy and you know, you know, finding the empathy, actions that are going to be the most impactful, you know, and, and creating a really inclusive culture. And so, you know, I do have a term for these, I call these my "key empathy behaviours". And now, I'm not saying that these are the only things that you are going to be doing, I'm saying that the vast majority of the behaviours that we consider empathetic, are going to sort of fall under these three main categories. And these categories are patience, perspective and connection.

And so we're going to start with patience. And for me, patience is the foundation of empathy. And by patience, I mean, just being present. Again, we live in a very fast paced world. It's very easy to see you know, an alert on your phone about what's you know, going on on Twitter, and oh, I have an email and Oh, wait, I wanted to see that thing on Instagram and I have a text message. Oh, my mom's calling. Excuse me. There's so many things. Going on constantly, that it's hard to just be present in our, you know, everyday lives. And so you have to be present. And that means a lot of times to just stop, I mean, again, stop what you're doing, put down your phone, you know, ignore every thing else going on around you, and just focus on the task or the person that is in front of you.

And if you begin to get, you know, a little bit antsy, about, you know, not being able to engage in other things, as you're engaging in the most important thing, which is the one that's in front of you, I want you to remember the why of this interaction. And if you constantly think, okay, I'm here, I'm talking to this person, because of blank, it's going to be a lot more advantageous for you to stay focused and stay patient, and stay calm and rooted in the current situation.

The next one is perspective. And I call perspective, the roots of understanding, I'm a thing that I like to remind my clients is that, you know, you don't have context, for every single thing that's going on and everyone's life around, you know, this coworker who's being a little bit short with you, it could be that, you know, he has a kid at home that just puked all night. And he has a mom who has cancer, and his wife is out of town on a business trip, and he's just exhausted and overwhelmed, you have no idea what's going on in, you know, other people's lives. And so if you just remind yourself that you don't know everything, it's going to be a lot easier to sort of go with what's you know, going on with you and this person and, and to, you know, approach this conversation from a place of compassion from a place of understanding.

And then I also say that think, before you speak, again, if you don't know everything, if you don't have context for everything, then and you're also patient, then, you know, you it was key empathy behaviours.

You know, thinking before you speak, is going to be important, because it is going to help you sort of, you know, reframe, or just evaluate what you were going to say from a place of understanding. And, you know, you want to eliminate as many biases as possible. And so, the thing that I like to do is to repeat what the person said to me, and I do this for a couple of reasons. One is to, you know, have clarity on exactly what the person said, and to is to filter it through my biases, right. We often don't hear what people say, we hear what we hear our opinion of what people have said. And so by repeating it, we're, you know, doing a better job of hearing exactly what they said.

I'm going to do a quick publish of the q&a question I just got, I think I did it wrong. Whoops. I'm sorry. I'm trying really hard to do the q&a. Let's see if I can find it over here somewhere. Oh, there it is. There it is. It's key empathy, behaviours. So there you go. All right, back to the presentation.

And the final thing that I want to tell you about is connection. And a connection is the real reason why we communicate. Things that I want you to keep in mind here is that you know, every interaction, every question is its own entity, you know, you are, you know, having a conversation with someone, and you know, the beginning of it and the end of it are its own things, right, every conversation that you have is going to lay the foundation for the next conversation that you have, if you had a bad conversation before, it doesn't mean that, you know, like this conversation is also going to be bad. It just means that you need to, you know, you know, like, approach this conversation as its own thing, right. So you want to speak with intention first, and then for impact second. The intent here is always going to be the, you know, one to keep, keep the relationship going and to keep the conversation, you know, pushing forward.

And then I say that, this is the beginning, you know, every time you end a conversation, again, it's, it's continuing to build upon a relationship, you know, relationships, they sort of go through all of these phases, they, you know, ebb and flow. And so, you know, every time you end a conversation, you are beginning, you know, a, a new aspect of your relationship. So, in order to really connect, you have to make sure that you're communicating with, with, you know, patience and perspective in order to really help the empathy to grow.

So this is the end of my presentation, I'm here is all of my contact information, I'm actually creating a longer form course, you know, on these key empathy behaviours. And that's going to be available on my website towards the end of this year in the fourth quarter, probably around November.

And yeah, I'm incredibly active on Twitter, as well as on LinkedIn. So please, please, please reach out. I love to get your notes. And then if you have any other questions, you can also send me an email then with that. Thank you to everyone here, who was a part of this amazing conversation. And thank you to everybody over at IT Matters especially to Joanna for putting this whole thing together. She's just an absolute gem. You've worked really hard and it's been an absolute joy to be a part of this.

About the talk

Inclusion has never been more important than right now. With a global pandemic forcing us all to adjust our lives and racial tensions that have hit a peak all over the world, understanding the struggles others are facing is imperative to successful conversations and team collaboration. But how do we approach these undoubtedly difficult conversations? And what do we do when we want to change our culture but don’t know exactly how to do it? We engage empathy.

This talk will guide you through the process of creating inclusive, collaborative teams with empathy. You will learn to define empathy on your own terms; tap into your past experiences that will help put you in the correct mindset for inclusion; and break down the model that operationalizes engaging empathy in a way that supports diverse teams.

About Sharon Steed

Sharon Steed is an international keynote speaker, author and founder of Communilogue, a corporate empathy and communications consultancy. She is a subject matter expert on empathy at work; she helps teams revolutionize the way they communicate, collaborate and approach diversity and inclusion by engaging empathy.

Sharon has spoken at companies and conferences in 17 countries spanning five continents, with a focus on improving team communication and collaboration through engaging empathy and vulnerability as a professional asset. She has given a TEDx talk on empowering insecurities.

A lifelong stutterer, Sharon uses her speech impediment to both teach what empathy is and to inspire audiences to engage in empathy actions daily. An author and course instructor for O’Reilly Media, Inc., her eBook Empathy at Work is available in the O’Reilly library. Sharon’s LinkedIn Learning course “Communicating With Empathy” has over 400,000 views. A native of the midwest in the United States, she currently lives in Pittsburgh, USA.

Photo of Sharon Steed

Sharon Steed


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