Training your empathy as a cure for cofounder problems, the #1 statup killer

I’m Jose; I run Data Science Retreat and AI Deep Dive, a 3-month school that takes pretty advanced machine learners and gets them to work together with mentors to produce a killer deep learning portfolio project. We want these projects to have social impact (example: a malaria microscope).

I’ve been doing startups for 10 years. I’m a solo founder now, and successful (bootstrapped two companies). I was miserable when I cofounded. I’ve experienced my share of hard conversations, cofounders leaving, jealousy, bickering for equity, etc. I’m happy to risk a drop in happiness cofounding again because I want to do the most good I can, and cofounders are the surest way of scaling impact.

I’m still scared of having cofounders, a single point of failure in your life. Or I was! I think I’ve found a hack that makes me feel confident that I will deal with any disagreement in a non-stressful way.

In this post, I’ll tell you about ‘Non-Violent communication’ (NVC), a technique that makes you better at ’empathy.’ This is what I did, warts and all. It may, or may not work for you. It’s not a surefire solution, but it is a beautiful hack, and I’m ecstatic to see if it works for anyone else.

The hack

How could I prevent any stress that comes from human interactions in a startup? It feels like an impossible task. But I’ve been here before (we all have!): a task that feels impossible blown wide open by a simple, elegant solution. The true definition of a hack. Last time I can remember finding a hack this powerful was when I was suffering from RSI. I thought my career in front of a keyboard was over. A horrible thought. Nothing standard medicine knew worked. Then, I found a solution (that may deserve a different post, ‘how a tennis ball in a socket saved my career’).

This book: The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook (Clair and Amber Davis) was enough to help me understand the way out. There are trigger points, and you have the ability to massage yourself. You know better where it hurts. Boom. Solved problem.

When you find something that effective (and rare), you want to tell others. This is exactly why I’m writing now. I’ve found another hack that is as effective, solving a problem as large (or larger!). You can train your empathy, and have better relationships with everyone around you. Including difficult people. Including cofounders (non-overlapping sets, with any luck).

It’s all in a single book, Marshall Rosenberg’s ‘Non-Violent communication,’ aka NVC.

What is empathy?

Empathy is hard to define. For me, it’s about

1- Being present, in the moment

2- Deep curiosity for what’s going on in the other person’s life

Empathy is a language. The components are simple (like a grammar), but the implementation is not. It takes lots of practice to learn a new language, and this is also true for empathy, at least the NVC variety.

Empathy is not compassion. You can have compassion for a group of people on a different continent who are suffering. Empathy happens one on one, with a person in close proximity. This is my definition, and I’m not an expert. Fortunately, there’s a much better definition of this language that is extremely actionable: NVC. This is how it works.

Empathy, the NVC way

Rosenberg’s method is simple and elegant, like lisp. it has the beauty of internal consistency.

An empathic conversation should go through four steps: observation, feeling, need, and request. On this post, I’m going to use a simpler version without the request at the end.

Observation

Just observe what the other person is doing that is causing you trouble, and state it. Do not provide evaluation. Otherwise, it feels like a judgment. Avoid judging people at all costs. Judging and blaming has become second nature in our culture, and you can see how it’s extremely toxic. You get intuitively that judging is bad, yet we do it all the time.

Example:

‘I have noticed that you haven’t  been able to work very long the last two days because you went to a festival.’

When we judge others, we contribute to violence. Intellectual analysis is often received as criticism. Stop the urge of providing it. The ‘because’ part may be already too much.

Rosenberg has a really nice rule. Do not use ‘but.’ “Rather than putting your ‘but’ in the face of an angry person, empathize.”

Feeling

Express your feelings. This is hard; some cultures make it harder than needed. There’s only about a hundred emotion words, make sure you use one of these. Many sentences using ‘I feel’ are not about emotions at all. You can use simple words, like ‘sad,’ ‘angry,’ ‘disappointed.’ No need for poetry here.

Example:

‘I feel disappointed because I’m working harder than you.’

Make it clear to the other person how you feel, but don’t make her responsible for your feelings. Only you are.

Rosenberg says ‘speak your pain nakedly without blame.’ Nobody said NVC is easy.

That should be enough for this step; outside an NVC convo, take a guess on someone else’s feelings, and tell them to see if you are right. Many people work hard hiding their feelings and may feel exposed an uncomfortable talking about them. Others will feel elated and impressed that you nailed them. Learn to identify feelings from the stream of communications that goes around you.

Need

Express your need. What can is ‘alive’ in you that the other person could satisfy? Note that needs create emotions. The other person doesn’t create the feeling, you do (through your needs). The other person may not be aware of your needs if you never communicated them. Rosenberg says ‘If we express our needs, we have a better chance of getting them.’ So simple, so true, so uncommon.

Example:

“I need to feel reassured that we are both totally committed to the success of our company.”

Unlike feelings, needs come in all forms; there is no shortlist. This one is a need to feel something. it could also be something more mundane, like a need for cleanliness (together with a request that you do the dishes).

Most people never communicate their needs. Clearly, they ask you to infer them. This is ineffective, don’t be that person.

In the example, you were the one communicating a need. But you could be the listener. Stay in the moment, no matter how uncomfortable the silence may be, no matter how much the other person is struggling, till she has been heard.

You will ‘see’ it when they felt heard: there’s a body change, shoulder drop, maybe a sigh, the flow of words stops. The conversation tone changes. You feel closer.

Don’t worry about the last part, the request. If you manage to see that body change you are already on your way to an agreement. Just make sure that your request is not a demand, is actionable, and worded in positive terms (i.e., don’t use ‘not’).

The more we hear them, the more they’ll hear us.

‘Ok, but does it work at all? Does it work for my particular conflict, at least?’ you may be thinking.

The challenge

I read voraciously, so I consumed all of Rosenberg’s books. I tried it with my six-year-old son and my girlfriend, to different degrees of success.

Son: crying because his football cards felt and are out of order

Me: Are you crying because you have a need for order and the cards are on the floor?

Son: nods, feeling heard. Crying stops in a too-good-to-be-true way

One other story:

Me: (some request). To make sure you understood, could you repeat what I said to me? (part of the method)

Girlfriend: Are you running this NVC thing on me? (Angry)

You can see it didn’t really work on the second story. This was a bad experience I didn’t want to repeat. As much as I had read about it, I was not any good at NVC. I was still not any better at empathy.

People write a lot about how NVC in the hands of a newbie sounds robotic as hell as not at all like receiving empathy. This robotic delivery may backfire. There are variants, for example, ‘street NVC’ that make it more informal. But the point is that you need to be present and curious about the other person. No scaffolding can turn a dull, uninspiring conversation into an emphatic one. Don’t try to give empathy if you don’t really care about the other person.

The practice

So how do you get out of ‘robotic NVC’? Practice. The best way I’ve found is to get together with others who are also trying to get better. A meetup is ideal. In Berlin, where I lived, there was none, so I created one. Meeting at the DSR office, which makes for fascinating contrast (people door to door discussing hardcore algorithms for deep learning vs. people practicing empathy).

There are lots of meetups all over, but if there’s none where you live, I suggest you start one. It was extremely beneficial for me, even on my tight schedule.

NVC works excellent in ‘pair programming’ mode: one person is the one who receives empathy, one gives empathy (the one with hands in the keyboard so to say), and one observes and gives hints. Then you rotate.

It’s not impossible to practice NVC while alone. Self-empathy is a thing. We are terribly judgmental with ourselves (self-criticisms). For example, try to avoid the word ‘should’ (to yourself or two others). This word has enormous power to create blame. “Don’t do anything that isn’t play” says Rosenberg.

What else can you practice alone?

1- Observation. Practice translating judgment into something neutral.

2- Connect your feeling with your need: “I feel… because I need …”

3- Saying thank you in NVC: “This is what you did; this is how I felt; this is the need of mine that was felt.” Compliments are not great. They are actually judgments, positive ones but judgments. It’s much better to know how you enriched the life of the person praising you so that you can do more of it.

4 – Monitor how you talk, stop yourself if you are using judgments, ‘buts’ or ‘shoulds.’ “From the moment people begin talking about what they need rather than what’s wrong with one another, the possibility of finding ways to meet everybody’s needs is greatly increased,” says Rosenberg.

So, to answer the ‘does it work’ question… I’m a total beginner. I can tell you they are not kidding when they say NVC is like a language.

I need to practice more.

Have I experienced any benefits? I became Vegan around the same time I started learning NVC. That may mean I’m improving my health. I have a much deeper appreciation of who my outstanding girlfriend is; I ‘see’ her in ways that I didn’t before. I truly love this woman. I became involved with the ‘effective altruism’ movement. I constantly think about what is violent and how we can remove violence from our communication. I come up with better ideas to use deep learning for social impact. I feel more connected to the world around me. I meet more people by chance that are in the same mental space (the DLR scholarships are an example).

But to the point: do I feel capable of starting something with cofounders? Yes, for the first time in many years. I’m confident any difficult conversation will be solved, even with my primitive empathy training.

NVC feels as effective as that tennis ball in a socket that saved my career once.