Sharon Steed: I don’t remember the first time I stuttered. I was really, really young, around three years old. This is me around that time. I know, I’m super adorable.
But I do remember the first time that I knew that stuttering was a bad thing. I was in the Christmas program at my church. My mom is a God-fearing woman and I went to Catholic school for 12 years. I was in church almost every Sunday. I was in the youth groups and I did all the churchy things that young church kids do. Don’t worry; it wasn’t a cult. It was an actual church that was not a cult. [Laughter]
When the time came to be a part of the Christmas program, my mom diligently signed me up and said, “You are going to talk about Jesus.” I’m like, “Yes! Absolutely, I am.”
I go to the first rehearsal and everybody is given a poem that they have to recite. The little kids who are, you know, like four years old, five years old, are given these very quick, four-line poems. Then the six-year-olds, seven-year-olds were given a poem that was, you know, like eight or nine lines. Then the eight-year-olds are given a 10- to 12-line poem.
At the time, I was around nine years old and I was given a very sort of mature poem to read. It was 15 to 20 lines. I got my poem and I was so excited about it.
I took it home. I showed my mom. I learned every single word probably on that same day, and I knew that I didn’t want to just read a poem. I wanted it to be an experience. Even at nine, I was a little bit of a ham. Even though I was also very shy, I knew that if I was going to be on stage, I had to perform it.
I was so excited about it. I learned it by heart. The day before the big day of this Christmas program, I actually got this brand new dress. I got my hair done in a really special way. Then I had to go to the dress rehearsal.
They kind of lined us up by age. We all began to recite our poems. The four- and five-year-olds went and they gave their cute little four-line poems. It was adorable because they’re little kids. Then the six- and seven-year-olds went and they gave their poems. It was like a little less adorable but still really adorable because they’re six and seven.
Then the eight-year-olds went; not really adorable. Nine-year-olds went. It was like, okay, we are expecting greatness because you guys can all read and do things in a way that’s going to be a little bit more believable and sincere. One by one, all of the kids went.
Then it came up to me. It was my turn. I come up on stage, I stand in the middle of the stage, I open my mouth to begin to give my poem, and nothing comes out. I was like, “Ugh. Okay, fine.” Then I tried again, and then the words began to come out, but it took a really long time.
I think that the nerves were beginning to get to me. I was going to have to talk in front of an entire group of people who all knew who I was and they all knew that I was a person who stuttered and that I was going to stutter a lot. What ended up happening is that this 20-line poem that should have taken--I don’t know--30 seconds to say, it took me a couple of minutes, probably closer to 3 minutes.
After I was done, I thought, “Yeah, well, you know, it is what it is.” The organizer of the event, she sort of pulled me over to the side and said, “You know, Sharon. I think that we have given you a poem that’s just a little bit too much.”
I said, “Yeah, okay, fine,” and so she then gave me a different poem and it was the same kind of poem that the four-year-olds were going to present. I saw the poem and I said, “Okay. Well, I’m not okay with this.” However, I completely understand it, right?
After the rehearsal is done, I get back into the car and my mom is like, “So, tell me everything.”
I was like, “Well, I had to get a new poem.”
She said, “Okay. Can I see the poem?”
I said, “Yeah, sure,” and I gave her the poem and she got so angry that they would give me a poem that was for a small, small child, barely a toddler, right?
She expressed herself like, “How dare they? How dare they give this to you? You are so far beyond this and you’re a smart kid. You can do the poem that they gave you.” She was angry about it for a couple of days.
It was at that point that I knew that stuttering was a bad thing. It was going to close doors. I wasn’t going to be able to do things that other people were going to do. Because of all of those facts, I was a bad person and I felt so incredibly ashamed. I took that shame with me throughout my entire life.
I took it with me in high school when I would have to give an oral presentation. I would try to pretend to be sick and my parents were like, “You ain’t sick. Go to school.” Then I would go to the nurse’s office and be like, [coughs] “I can’t -- I can’t talk. I’m sick.” Then, during that period I would have to give this presentation, I would be sick and I would just take the F.
The shame came with me as I went through college. I failed out of college a couple of times and then I had to go to another college and I bounced around to another college. A simple, four-year degree took me almost seven years to finish because I was so ashamed of who I was and I was taking myself out of the running. I would drop classes where I was going to have to give a presentation or I was going to have to talk or I was going to have to participate.
That shame followed me all throughout the beginning of my career. I began my career as a business writer. I would write for clients all kinds of things, and I chose that career because I knew that I wasn’t going to have to talk.
However, if you are a freelancer, then you have to go to events. You have to tell people the kind of work that you do in order to get clients. I wasn’t able to do that because I was so ashamed of the way I communicated with people.
I finally came to this point in my life, in my career, when I knew that I had to sort of overcome this fear. Right? I knew that I had to change. I decided to pursue speech therapy because, again, I was ready to change.
The first day I went in there, I said, “Okay, look. I’m a person who stutters. Here’s my sort of life story. I would like to be able to be comfortable going into events and just talking to people and so I can improve my career.”
She said, “Okay, cool. I’m going to be able to teach you techniques that are going to help make stuttering a lot easier.”
In my reptile brain, I translated that to, “I’m not going to stutter ever again,” and so I was beginning to get really, really, really excited.
Then she said, “However, I’m going to teach you all these things but the only way that these things are going to be effective is if you are comfortable with stuttering,” and I, like, almost burned her house down.
I’m like, “In what world would this thing that has made me feel like less of a person ever become so engrained in my life as a positive or even as a neutral that I could be comfortable with it?” I decided to put the matches away and I gave her some time. I’m like, “Okay, look. I’m going to come back but I don’t believe you.”
I was going to speech therapy for like eight or nine months and, if anything, I was stuttering a little bit more because now I was constantly thinking about it. I was actually about to quit because I thought, “I’m not going to be helped here,” and then a thing happened that totally changed my entire life.
I was at the car dealership one day. I had to get my car serviced. I drive into the car dealership and park. One of the service guys comes up to me and he says, “Hey, how can I help you?” I open my mouth to tell him the thing that I wanted to say and the words were coming out so slowly and so painfully that I was embarrassed. I was stuttering occasionally on every single syllable.
In the beginning, he was kind of like, “What’s going on?” Then he began to feel sorry for me. I could see it on his face because I was having a really hard time and I was so ashamed. The shame was all over my body that he was trying to help me. He was even trying to be a little bit encouraging.
After one of the most painful couple of minutes of my life, I was finally able to say, “Okay, here are the things I need to get done.”
He said, “Okay. Great. We’ll take your car. Go ahead and go into the waiting room and we’ll come talk to you after we’re done.”
I go into the waiting room and I go into the bathroom. I go all the way into the back of the bathroom into the very last stall. I close the door and I cried. I didn’t cry because of stuttering. I cried because I was so overwhelmed with the shame of how I communicate.
If I communicate this way and I continue to have that connotation of stuttering is bad, therefore, I am a bad person, I’m never going to be able to enjoy my life. I’m never going to be able to pursue the kinds of things that I want to pursue. I’m never really going to be me around anyone: not my parents, not my partner, not my friends.
It was that day where I realized that all this time, yeah, I was ready to change. However, I wasn’t ready for the changes I had to make in order to really tackle this thing and overcome this fear.
It was that day that I called my speech therapist and I said, “I understand. I know that I have to be comfortable with stuttering. How do we get there?”
She said, “Well, why don’t you pursue public speaking?”
That was another moment when I was like, “You know I want to burn your house down?”
[Laughter] You know I’m crazy.
She said, “No, no, no. It is a really great way to just talk about your experiences in a very safe space.” She connected me with a graduate program, you know, like back in Chicago where I’m from. I gave a talk there about stuttering and the experiences I had had.
After I was done with that talk and I didn’t die, I was like, “I think I’m going to try this again,” and so I applied to give an Ignite talk. I don’t know if you guys know what those are. Essentially, you have 5 minutes and you get, I believe, 20 slides. Those slides change automatically every 15 seconds. Obviously, this is perfect for a person like me who stutters. [Laughter]
I was accepted and I got on stage. I gave the talk. This is me giving that talk. This was back in 2014. As you can tell, this is my first actual talk because I had to use a pie chart to show the audience what one percent looked like.
This was the first talk I gave to people that did not know who I was and that did not know what to expect. Here is the first time in my life where I was truly vulnerable and I was truly honest about who I was.
After I got off this stage, I was like, “Okay. I need to get the fuck out of here. I do not want to talk to these people. This is terrifying. I can’t handle this.”
People kept stopping me and saying, “That was really awesome. I have this insecurity and I have allowed that to sort of stop me from pursuing the kinds of things I want to pursue.” Person after person after person were all coming up to me and telling me these kinds of stories.
I thought, “Wow. My little five minutes of being vulnerable, it connected me to people in a way that I just hadn’t ever really experienced before.” Then, as a result of this talk, of this day, that I was invited to speak at my first real conference.
After I got back home, I kind of thought about everything that had just happened that day. I was able to have really sincere conversations with people who were a lot like me except their issue was a little bit different from mine. And I was able to get this really incredible opportunity to share my story in another capacity. That’s why vulnerability for me and for all of you is going to be the gateway to opportunity.
Even if you are unsure, even if you are uncertain, even if you are convinced that there is a thing about you that takes you out of the running for something, even if you don’t feel comfortable speaking up, even if you don’t feel comfortable talking to your coworkers, that’s okay. As long as you just open yourself up a little bit, you are going to be exposed to opportunities that you had no idea were possible.
To really exploit those opportunities--that is not a good word, but I’m going to stick with it--you have to have empathy. That’s why I’m here to talk to you today.
In order to really discuss…
A lot just happened right there.
Take a deep breath. There we go.
In order to really discuss how to properly engage empathy at work, on teams, and in life in general, we first have to define empathy. Empathy is a noun. I speak at a lot of conferences all of the time all over the world and a lot of people are really beginning to talk about empathy more, which I think is really incredible.
However, I tend to hear two very specific definitions of what empathy is. The first one is the dictionary definition, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person, which -- cool. Yeah. That makes sense.
The other one I hear, and I hear this one a lot more -- people get upset when they talk about empathy. They kind of get on a soapbox a little bit. I’m not naming names, obviously. But the other definition I hear is that thing that you have to do in the office in order to not be an asshole at work.
Which, I mean, I’m not saying that both of these things aren’t 100% true. I’m just saying that there has to be a better way to sort of communicate this for people to really understand and embrace it.
These two definitions aren’t incredibly helpful because empathy, as a noun, is an idea. It is completely intangible. There isn’t anything in those definitions that are going to actually help you be a better empath on your teams.
I got to thinking; how can I teach what empathy is in a way that everyone can really understand? Then I thought, okay, like, there has to be a concept that’s comparable where everyone gets it but nobody can explain it. Then it came to me in that concept--
Oh, sorry about that.
That concept is love. Aww.
Brand new love is super exciting.
You feel like you can do anything as a result of being around this person. You somehow manage to find time in your life to write email length text messages. Nobody reads these, right? Is it just me? No? Okay.
You do really dumb things to show everybody how much you are in love with this other person because they are the best person in the world, #BaeAllDay, all of that beautiful, wonderful, “just met you, don’t really know you but you’re amazing and I can’t explain it,” sort of thing.
Time goes on and you get to know this person. You get to spend a lot more time with them. One day, you realize, “Wow, I want to create a life with this person,” or, “I could create a life with this person.” However, you have to deal with the non-cool part of being in love, right?
In the beginning, it’s all cats, text messages, and whatever this is happening right here. But after a while, it kind of turns into this.
You know. Love as a noun is an idea. It’s a -- [Laughter]
Hold on. There we go.
Love as a noun is an idea. It’s an incredible idea. It’s a big idea that, again, everybody knows but nobody really can pinpoint exactly how to get there, how to find a person, how to even make it work, right?
Love as a verb is a choice. Each person, each couple, each partner, each parent, each person is going to have to choose, one, how they can show other people love and, two, how they need other people to show them love.
If we bring that back to empathy, empathy as a noun is an idea. It’s a really great idea. It’s the best idea. However, it is completely intangible and it is totally meaningless until you define it.
Empathy as a verb is a choice. It’s a choice that you have to make every single day. How do we choose empathy? That really comes down to how you choose empathy. It’s why empathy is going to be how you define it.
Every person here, including me, all of us are going to need something a little bit different to really feel like we are being shown empathy by others. Others are going to have to tell us the things that they need in order for us to show them empathy.
You have to work empathy out as an individual and as a team. As a team in your house, like with your family, as a team with your friends, as a team at work, in your organization as a whole. All of these are choices that you guys have to make on your own terms.
To engage empathy, you have to continue to choose empathy. In order to choose empathy, one of the things that’s going to be incredibly impactful, after you choose that empathy, is how you collaborate with each other as a team.
This is me. I had to call myself something after a couple of years of being a speaker. I call myself an “Empathy Consultant” or, if I’m talking to someone who is really important, like at a bank, a “Corporate Empathy Consultant.”
One of the things I do is I have done courses on communicating with empathy and empathy at work. This is a course that I did with LinkedIn. It is available online and it is free. It’s called Communicating with Empathy and it’s about an hour and 20 minutes long.
This is the finished product. It’s beautiful. It’s professional. It’s amazing, and I am incredibly, incredibly proud of it.
The process in order to get here was a nightmare. When you work with LinkedIn, they fly you out to their learning headquarters in this town called Carpinteria, California. It’s like 20 minutes outside of Santa Barbara. It’s about an hour north of Los Angeles.
It’s incredible and it’s beautiful. They treat you like you are a #ImportantPerson, like a famous person, right?
Here was my set and they designed this only for me. This did not exist until I came on board and I wrote my course. As you can see, it says “Empathy” on the little chalkboard right there.
That’s right. I felt really special. They hired a hair and makeup artist to do my makeup. They put me in a hotel that was right on the beach. You could see the palm trees. You could see the mountains in the background. You guys, I felt like Beyonce.
You could not tell me nothin’, and so all of this was going on and I’m feeling really good about myself. Then I have to go onset on the first day, after all these really awesome things are happening and, like, ego out here. I get up there to being to present and I see this - a teleprompter.
As a person who stutters, one of the most terrifying experiences of your life -- yes, I’m being very dramatic, but not really -- is having to read out loud. I remember being in school and counting down all of the paragraphs and all of the people to see which paragraph I was going to have to read. Then I was trying to figure out, “Okay, I’m probably going to stutter here. However, I can get through these four words and be fine. But then there’s this other word I’m going to stutter.” It is such a terrifying experience because you are exposing your most uncomfortable, vulnerable, insecure part of you in front of your entire classroom.
Well, add a camera, thousands of dollars spent in order to get you out there, to house you, to feed you, to hire a makeup artist, and then to have a course go online for how many hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of people who are going to watch it. I saw this teleprompter on day one and my reaction was, “Oh, shit!”
I began to try to read and it just wasn’t going well. On day one, they were really excited, like, “We think that these are the best scripts that we’ve ever seen.”
I’m like, “I was a writer. I know.”
They’re like, “No, you’re so amazing and you’re so cool to talk, and you’re a natural, and you’re charismatic.” In the beginning, I think I’m believing these things that they’re saying.
Then, by the end of day one, I’m like, “Wait a minute. I think they’re just blowing smoke up my ass. I think they’re just trying to get me to be comfortable here.”
Then on day two is when things really begin to hit the fan. I wasn’t able to get through even a couple of sentences without stuttering so much and so embarrassingly in front of all of these people, in front of this camera. In the beginning, it was all positive words like, “I love your scripts. You’re amazing. You look so good on camera.”
Then by the end of day two, it was like, “Well, I don’t think we actually have to have the scripts. How about if we did it in this different way? How do you feel about another presenter maybe coming in to do this work with you?” Their whole vocabulary went from positive, incredible, “This is going to be such a successful course,” to, “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to use any of this content.”
At the end of day two, I go to a restaurant. I was going to eat dinner. It was happy hour, and so it was packed. I got on the phone with my then-boyfriend, my now-husband, and I cried. It wasn’t like the car dealership crying where there were a couple of tears and I still looked cute. It was like ugly Kim Kardashian sobbing.
Again, I am in a busy, packed restaurant. Imagine this room right here and there’s some person over there or over there who is balling their eyes out on the phone. My server was actively avoiding me.
I didn’t care. I was like, “This is my life. This is our livelihood. I signed a contract. They paid me money.” I was so defeated and I was so terrified that this thing I had worked so hard for and that all this money that they had already given me that I had already spent, I was going to have to pay it back and this thing that I was so excited about was never going to come out.
I left the restaurant. I somehow was able to flag the waitress down in between heaves because I couldn’t breathe because I was crying so hard. I got in the car and I drove back to the hotel. I got back to the hotel and I cried some more. I went to bed and I woke up. I’m dramatic. I cried some more.
Then it dawned on me that I know that I’m going to have to give them a product that they can use. However, how they create this product, I’m not able to work in that exact capacity. How can I do my best work and also give them a product that they need?
I get up to the studios and I said, “Hey, is there any way that I can just be in the room completely alone, just me and the teleprompter?”
They said, “Yeah, sure.”
We did that and I was able to complete the entire course and it is now online. You can view it. I think it has 400,000 views, which is mind-blowing to me.
More importantly, I was able to help people with this content. However, if I kind of bring it back to me and the experience I had, I failed at collaborating with empathy because when I signed this contract, I told them, “Yes, absolutely, I can do it. It’ll be fine.” I knew that there was like a 2% chance it would be fine but a 98% chance that we were going to have to make some adjustments.
In order to collaborate with empathy, a thing that I did not do and it took me days, days in order to get here, was to have completely open lines of communication. I had to be a lot more honest about the things that I had to have in order to create a product that they could put online and that I could do. Right?
Not every single person is going to be able to work in the same capacity in order to get the same job completed. You can be successful and not do things in exactly the same way. If you don’t feel comfortable or if you don’t feel confident completing a task in a way that everybody else on your team is doing, you need to be able to talk to your team and your team has to be able to say, “Hey, okay. If you can’t do it this way, how can you do this? How can we work together and create the desired results?”
It also requires a feeling of safety and inclusion. Speaking up when everybody else is saying one thing and doing one thing, and you know that you can’t exactly do the thing in the way that everybody else can, is a terrifying experience.
I know in my course, they’ve worked with hundreds, thousands of other authors who are able to walk into those studios and do that course in a way that everybody else could do it and it was fine. I needed a little bit of extra time, I needed a little bit of extra help, and I needed “special treatment” in order to have those same results. In order to speak up, I had to feel safe enough and be included enough in order to be confident enough to ask for exactly the thing that I had to have in order to be successful.
Then, again, the big point here is that individuals have to be able to ask for exactly what they need. Your team needs to be inclusive enough to where even if every person agrees on one thing and there’s one person who is like, “Well, I don’t know about that,” it could be possible that this one person’s perspective could completely change the course of a project. It could change the outcome of a thing. It can make you more successful or, at the very least, it could just give you a different perspective.
This is me on the last day. It says, “Hi, mom,” because I’m cheesy. This is a picture of a person who was completely at her bottom on day two and, by day four, I was able to collaborate with empathy. I was able to ask for the things that I need. I was working with a team who was okay with trying something a little bit different, and I felt incredibly included and incredibly safe. As a result, we were incredibly successful and we worked as a cohesive unit.
That’s why collaborating with empathy is putting people first. It’s not your needs or your wants. It’s not going to be what works best for you and only you. It’s putting the team as a whole at the top of the priority list. Your people-first mentality flourishes when empathy is at the heart of your collaborative efforts.
I have a couple of minutes left and I want to talk about, how do we choose empathy? Right? I’ve talked about all of the benefits of having empathy, collaborating with empathy, and just what empathy is.
How do we choose empathy? I like to call choosing empathy -- you have to figure out what your key empathy behaviors are going to be. Now, I’m not saying every single person is going to have the same key empathy behaviors or KEBs, if you will.
However, in my practice as a consultant, I have seen that the vast majority of people and teams, these key empathy behaviors are going to fall under three main categories. The first is patience, and I am going to talk about these for a couple of minutes -- well, a couple of seconds. Perspective is the next one. Then the other category is connection.
Let’s talk about patience first. Patience is going to be the foundation of empathy. What do I mean by that? You have to be patient first before you can be anything else. Right?
Being patient means being present, completely present. We live in a world where we’re constantly engaged by a million other things all of the time: our phones, our friends, our parents, our bosses, our coworkers, our emails, the news. It’s everything, it’s everywhere, it’s all the time.
You really do have to be completely present. In order to do that, you really do have to kind of tune everything out and focus on this person or this experience that you are having right now.
The easiest way to do that is to remember the “why.” Why are you having this interaction? Why are you here? Why are you talking to this person? Why are you in this meeting? That one is a little bit harder because a lot of meetings can be emails, but there is a purpose and you just have to always remember the “why.”
The next sort of category of these key empathy behaviors is perspective. That’s going to be the root of truly understanding other people. We sort of assume that we know everything about everyone and that’s just not true.
When you are actively seeking perspective, you are attempting to either fill in the blanks or you are realizing that you might not know every single thing that’s going on in this other person’s life. I know; it’s totally shocking. Their behavior, it might not have anything to do with you. It could be as a result of what’s going on outside of the office, in their home, anywhere else.
You need to think before you speak. When we are in more difficult, challenging conversations, we don’t always think about the things before we say them. We just start talking and that’s not always the best thing that you can do. You should always take a moment, always have patience, and consider what you are going to say before you say it.
Then you also want to eliminate bias as much as possible. A good way to do this is to just repeat what a person has said. A lot of the times when a person is talking, we don’t hear what they said; we hear our opinion of what they said. By repeating them, we are going to be able to eliminate at least a little bit of the bias in order to really get to the root of what they are trying to say.
The final one, and I will cover this quickly, is connection. Connection is the real reason that we communicate. You want to use empathetic communication. Again, that is going to be how you define it.
You want to speak with intention and not for impact. Then you want to remember that every interaction is its own entity. Every single time you talk to a person is going to set you up for the next time that you are going to talk to that person. You want to leave every conversation in a better place than where it began.
Engaging empathy is being agile. It’s being culturally agile. It’s knowing that you come from a little bit of a different background than other people on your team, other people in your life, and it’s sort of dealing with those cultural differences in a positive way.
It’s being agile communicators. Every conversation with every single person is going to require a little something different from you. Try to speak to people in a way that they can best embrace and understand in order to really get your message and get their message across.
Finally, engaging empathy is being agile thinkers and feelers. All of us are different. All of us come from different places. All of us have different perspectives. We’re not going to agree all the time on every single thing. That’s okay. If you are an agile thinking and an agile feeler, you are going to take that opportunity of differences in order to see how to create a thing that you didn’t think that you could create before or connect in a way that’s going to be more sincere and a lot more lasting.
To engage empathy, you truly do have to choose empathy. You have to choose it and define it on your own terms.
[Audience applause and cheers]