How being a designer reduced my pedantry in arguments and affected my language

Empathy is useful

Monday 19 February 2024

Design has impacted how I handle myself in various situations across all spheres of my life - personal, professional, social, and everything in between. More specifically - trying to become better at design has led me to practice a certain subset of skills involving empathy and related characteristics.

I try to do things to the best of my ability. When I first started learning about design as a discipline beyond the confines of graphic design, which was my first introduction, I settled on a notion of design consisting of two things: how well we understand people, and how well a solution could be creatively tailored to that understanding. I focus on the former in this article; that’s where this all started: the psychology of people.

See YouTube video 'Brené Brown on Empathy'

It could be said this was a likely effect of my journey into adulthood. I venture that this maturation meant I was more receptive to what I could understand and the depth of what I was able to learn and subsequently apply. These changes also started fairly early in my twenties and well before my current capabilities. At this stage of my life (thirties, o no), the jar of fucks I have to give about most energy-draining things is slowly emptying and being replaced with cookies, which are far tastier.

Conflict resolution

One of the areas heavily impacted by design is the way I handle arguments. This was most easily seen in text. The level of pedantry to counter every single point was excruciating; more so if I was engage in an argument with someone with the same behaviour.

At some point I subconsciously decided that being right wasn’t worth it. Arguments are unavoidable; ugliness isn’t worth the effort. Leaving my ego at the door was nigh painful; becoming outcome-focussed meant resisting the urge to comment on everything and instead focus on resolving the conflict.

At this point in my self-development journey, I no longer feel wronged in a similar manner. How people behave is a reflection of themselves, and not necessarily myself; who am I to take their feelings personally? Those are theirs, and they’re usually valid. Most people I engage with (luckily!) aren’t unreasonable, and feelings on both sides can be valid even if they’re contradictory - which leads me to my next point:

Both can be true

There is a lot of black-and-white when it comes to people being steadfast in their emotional standpoints when the reality is we’re swimming in a grey area. I find a lot of my responses these days have become ‘both can be true’. Someone could feel hurt at something seemingly innocuous I said that wasn’t intended to do so; I don’t have to feel like I did anything wrong (depending on what it is), but I can still apologise for having that effect. Someone hurting, or being right (perhaps with a hint of superiority or smugness, hm? Yes, the irony was intentional 😆) - what’s more important? Most people aren’t careful with language in they’re communicating.

Another design epithet that hit home: focus on what people mean, not what they say. Imagine the agency I felt when I discovered active listening skills.

Character development

Early on I came to the conclusion people are the eventually the receivers of most things we do - be it ourselves or someone else. Even when we do things for altruistic purposes, we usually benefit internally to some degree. Being kind makes us feel good. While I became more kind and enjoy helping people, I became selective to whom I gave my energy and no longer tolerated toxicity.

Note that this doesn’t mean one must tip-toe around the feelings of others all the time. In reading the situation ‘correctly’ we’re able to make more appropriate decisions; personally, I’d rather someone found me to be an asshat only when I intended to be one (and yes, I do this, albeit rarely!).

Changes in communication

Being empathetic and outcome-focussed in more difficult conversations has required changes in communication both verbally and in text:

  • Language: The nature of the language I use is more tactful than it used to be. I’ve always been straightforward in communicating issues, but not necessarily as careful with my language.
  • Efficiency: I hesitate to call myself articulate, as I could be more concise and efficient, so I often describe myself as wordy or talkative (oh, the irony). I would like to think I’ve become better at being concise when the situation warrants it.
  • Reception: Fewer text walls in social messaging apps or emails. Whatever is being communicated often gets amplified and tinged with overwhelm, which is not something I would like received. Calls are better.

My use of an obscene number of emotes and emojis has remained, however. They’re a fantastic indicator of tone, which can be difficult to glean through text. I’m never gonna give them up.

Hehe. :3

There can be downsides

There’s a lot I’ve learnt about handling people. Ultimately, much about becoming a better designer was tightly coupled with becoming a better person. Empathy overload combined with kindness can contribute to deteriorating mental health. If someone were to go down this route of self-development with empathy there needs to be growth of self-awareness and emotional regulation. Boundaries need to be slammed down when appropriate, and protected. I may have a long way to go, but the learning process has been invaluable in many facets of my life already.

In conclusion

In giving advice to developers, I encourage them to learn about design: at minimum learn to have more empathy for users, if nothing else - though there’s plenty on designing effective systems and solutions that is relevant to a developer, especially if you work in small teams or alone. I advise designers to learn some code too; many who take their work seriously do it because they value that understanding.