Not Getting the Support or Buy-In You Want? Try a little empathy!
"It's not who is right, but what is right, that is
"An open ear is the only believable sign of an
"A human being is a part of the whole called by us
universe, a part limited in time and space.
He experiences himself, his thoughts and
feelings as something separated from the rest, a
kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.
This delusion is a kind of prison for us,
restricting us to our personal desires and to
affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our
task must be to free ourselves from this prison by
widening our circle of compassion to embrace all
living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
As someone who's always been interested in and
curious about the "soft skills" that make
individuals, groups, and teams particularly
effective, it seems to me that empathy has gotten
short shrift in terms of just how powerful a
capability it is in influencing people, building
relationships, getting buy-in and motivation, and
creating resilience both personally and in
systems. I've also been bemused by the irony of
that expression, as the soft stuff is the hard
stuff for many of us!
In working with an executive coaching client
recently, I was asked to conduct some interviews
for 360 feedback, and was struck by the importance
her peers and bosses placed on her being able to
understand and hold her customers' perspectives.
In fact, without actually using the word
"empathy", a number of the interviewees indicated
it was a key success factor if my client wants to
be more effective in her leadership and influence,
even though she is already perceived as a very
caring, people-competent director.
So what are we talking about exactly? The
American Heritage Dictionary defines empathy as
"Understanding so intimate that the feelings,
thoughts, and motives of one are readily
comprehended by another."
In the emotional intelligence lexicon, empathy is
the core, critical competence of social awareness.
In this context, particularly as it applies to
business performance and organizations, empathy is
the ability to understand other people, to take
other and multiple perspectives.
It is based in taking an active interest in
others' concerns. The ability to be empathic
reflects increasing complexity of perspective and
depth of understanding of others, and thus is
critical for effective leadership.
Our natural tendency to see the world as we are
rather than as things are limits our abilities to
connect with others and to make more appropriate
or effective choices based on what's right for the
whole 'be it a team, the organization, customers,
or business partners. If we are not empathic to
our colleagues, customers, and clients'
perspectives, we will not be effective in selling
our ideas, programs, and products.
Likewise, some organizational cultures value and
foster empathy more than others. At one point, I
coached in a Fortune 100 company where a command
and control management style predominated.
Empathy was dismissed as a sign of weakness and
management failed to see the power it held in
driving motivation and performance, and achieving
Another reason people are cautious about
demonstrating empathy is a fear that if I show
that I understand, care about, and acknowledge the
other person's reality that means that I agree
with them, and therefore I weaken my interests.
However, acknowledging another's perspective and
taking it into account, does not imply or mean
that we have to agree with them.
While some folks are naturally hard wired to be
empathic, anyone can develop empathy behaviors.
How do you do that?
- Practice listening when someone approaches you
to talk and express feelings if you would
typically feel too busy to talk and brush them
- Try using open-ended inquiry, such as "tell me
more about that" to make sure you understand the
other person's point of view and their motivation,
both in emotion and content.
- Be aware of your ability to adjust your style
and approach based on the needs and style you are
working with., not only verbally but also in
para-language such as tone, pitch, volume and
pace, non-verbal body language, and dress.
Be aware that even those of us who are more
naturally empathic can fail to demonstrate this
ability, when we're dealing with something that we
have an emotional charge or investment in.
A final safety tip: If you want to demonstrate or
develop empathy and experience its' potential
power, you must necessarily let go of the need and
desire to be right, even if you feel and believe
passionately in your idea or position. Being
right and being empathically curious just don't go
(c) Copyright 2003. Manya Arond-Thomas, all rights reserved.
About the Author
Manya Arond-Thomas, M.D., is the founder of Manya
Arond-Thomas & Company, a coaching and consulting
firm that catalyzes the creation of 'right results' through
facilitating executive development, high-performance teams
and organizational effectiveness. She can be reached at
(734) 480-1932 or e-mailed at email@example.com
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