The Power of Empathy: What We Don’t Know Won’t Help Us

Leadership-the-power-of-empathy“I know I have to work for him,” complains a young executive. “He runs our company but he seems so judgmental. Whenever we talk he just looks at me levelly as if waiting for me just to go away. That’s a problem when I need him to approve the restructuring of our group.”

“What do you think is going on for him?” I ask.

“I don’t know.  He gets really animated when he talks shop with the project guys, but when he and I try to talk about what’s going on inside our organization, he has nothing to say.”

“Nothing?”

“Well, almost nothing. When I first described my new org chart, he made some lame comment like, ‘Well, aren’t you the aggressive one?’ What’s with that? I am a total team player!” responds the frustrated executive.

Clearly, there is some kind of failure to communicate what is going on between this executive and the senior executive. What is causing it is less clear. For the young executive to move her initiative forward, she will need to discover what lies beneath his resistance. To accomplish that is tough when you have someone you do not know and, it would appear on the surface, does not want you to know.

What to do?

From To Kill a Mockingbird comes the famous quote, “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”  It refers to empathy, the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings.

In the 21st Century, we have become rather short on empathy. Tales of escalating narcissism appear regularly in the press. Being real, much less vulnerable, is not widely embraced. At the same time, Brené Brown has sparked a whole movement focusing on that very thing. It is a concept that is attractive to many, at least in theory. In practice, it’s hard to achieve, particularly when being Donald Trump tough gets so much attention.

Even in the average business day, admitting things you do not know can be construed as weak and ineffective, however misguided the judgment. How else can you make progress toward new ideas and connections without diving into unexplored corridors?

So what does the young executive do to connect with the senior executive? Here are three suggestions for how to convert what you don’t know into what you can find out, to win what you need.

1. Know your purpose:

What do you really need from this person? You do not have to be friends with him. However, if he holds critical political and decision-making power, know what actual decisions he has to make for you. Is it merely to approve programs or does he hold the keys to your career?

2. Know why rejecting behavior sets you off:

When someone behaves in a distant and unsupportive way, it is all too common to personalize it. Chances are high, however, that his or her reaction to you has nothing to do with your value or credibility. He or she may be having a bad day or the initiatives you are proposing may not be in an area of expertise and the person is uncomfortable revealing his or her ignorance. If it really is personal, you will know because something actually occurred between you that caused you both discomfort.

3. Allocate time to discovery:

Colombo, the police detective character played by Peter Falk, was maddeningly slow and methodical when he worked to track down the answer to a mystery. Yet, he also succeeded in uncovering what he needed to know.  Modern business does not embrace “slow” in any form. However, what is the whole mindfulness movement about but slowing down and looking? If it weren’t so rewarding, it would not have such pull in the corridors of companies from Google to Monsanto. The question is how to practice it within the metabolism of a business day. The best approach is to incorporate your detective work opportunistically. Some examples:

  • When in the room with the senior executive, take the time to observe his or her behavior with you and with others. Does he or she appear to be more comfortable with driver types, favor a certain lieutenant or take notes and if so, of what?  What kind of conversations does he or she join and with how much enthusiasm? Where does he or she disengage or get upset?
  • After the meeting, follow up with questions. If there are trusted colleagues around who either were there or know this senior executive from other contexts, ask them for their experience of him or her. If they were at the meeting, it is a natural act to debrief with them on how they viewed the proceedings.
  • When next engaging with the senior executive, consider taking more behavioral risks. You might ask if you are receiving the level expression, “Is there a way you’d like me to think about this differently? Based on the way you are responding, you seem unsatisfied.” Even better, try humor, “I know organizational restructuring rivals going to the dentist, but do you have any reactions to this plan you’d like to share?”

Learning to understand what makes others tick will inform your strategies for successfully influencing others and lead to getting things done!

 

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