The Life Autistic: Can Empathy Be Learned?

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Almost ten years ago, I began my Apple career as an iPhone Advisor.

It was my first customer service job, in a call center, taking phone calls from strangers, and de-escalating people while I solved their technical (and sometimes personal) issues.

I look through all those elements of my job through The Life Autistic lens; frankly, I don’t know how I managed!

The job required a thing that would make or break one’s success.

Empathy.

*gulp*

Of course I knew about empathy. I mean, I had the dictionary definition on hand, along with plenty of analogies to describe what it meant, how it related, why it applied to the work.

How was I supposed to learn something I couldn’t always feel?

I knew I couldn’t be reborn as a natural empath. I didn’t have the capacity to program myself that way for the job.

But I did have my own attributes that would help. Puzzle-solving. Hyper-competitiveness. Pattern recognition. 

I’ll fast forward the story a bit and admit that I didn’t learn empathy.

Instead, I practiced and perfected empathic response. 

It took some doing, being able to listen, hear, and read into the core of customer concerns, to frame the why behind the what of their tech issue. I made it an art, to turn those stated and unstated concerns back into a response that more or less said “I feel ya.” 

Not every situation called for it, and I more than once maybe tried too hard, to my embarrassment. But it didn’t matter.

What did matter is that I had to do it. I wanted to be the best at the job. I could still come in as Hunter and take calls as H2.

It was and still is unusual to me, operating in a language that I don’t often think and rarely feel.

But then, sometimes, people will respond back.

“Exactly – you know what I mean, don’t you?”

“I know, right? You get it.”

“YES! I, you, you understand just what I’m going through.”

And then it’s like . . . I do feel it.

I don’t ‘get’ empathy. Not until I give it first. 

 

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The Life Autistic: We are your Workplace Engines – Here’s Why

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I remember getting a interesting compliment from my boss on my work ethic; it was as much his own transparent introspection as it was a testament to my drive:

“I have actually let things slip, knowing that you will catch them.”

(And for the record, this was a manager who did and does get things done!)

I was grateful for the feedback — flattered even!

Despite my troubles in other areas (tact, speaking out of turn, saying too much, being too direct, you get the trend) — in both leadership and in individual contribution, there are some ‘autistic features’ that have really helped me.

And they’re common enough among us autists to where they help you.

We’re great at laser-focusing on tasks.

I ended up building all of my Excel skills purely by taking on the most tedious and taxing items that involved spreadsheets, formulas, all that jazz. While I’ve since moved on to more fun tools (hello, Tableau!), my ability to zero in and grind out arduous work paid off.

We’re honest.

For all of our tactlessness, we are at least forthright about when something is great or not great. Back when I managed supervisors, I wasn’t always the most accommodating, nor the warmest, fuzziest manager. But I was honest, and that brought out the best in my folks – the expectations and feedback were always clear.

We’re good with details.

One of my best career experiences was with a global communication team — I was fortunate to be in a role that allowed me to fight for excellence in even the smallest details: pixel-perfect presentation arrangements, fine-toothed grammatical combing, and punctilious analysis of distribution lists, procedures, and more.

We’re quite good engines: driven, detailed, and dutiful.

Hire more of us, please!