As I’ve been writing posts lately I’ve realized that the issue that I have really been skirting around is the ability to show empathy for others. One of the hardest things for me to do is to show empathy for someone who is really ticking me off. That is likely true for you as well.
Frequently, people talk about having empathy in their personal lives, but you don’t hear much about it at work. Having empathy for your spouse or your child can help create a bridge that keeps your relationship strong. Having empathy for someone at work can help create a good working relationship. Empathy can also provide a means to take a dysfunctional relationship and improve it. I think that most people shy away from using empathy when they are in a power struggle with someone else because they are afraid that it will make them appear weak. If the person you are dealing with is that concerned with power, you might have some issues, but it is better to figure that out sooner rather than later.
The definition of empathy that I work with is “put yourself in the other person’s position”. I mean really do it. Don’t give it lip service. Use those listening skills and get inside their head. Figure out why they are being intractable. Maybe they think this is just how they are supposed to act. Maybe they don’t feel like you are giving them any options and you are steam rolling them. Maybe their self-confidence isn’t that great and they are trying to look strong.
I was once in a meeting with someone who by all measurable corporate standards had failed to deliver what they were supposed to do. In reality they were setup to fail. They were inexperienced and didn’t get the resources they needed to do their job. There wasn’t a clear set of requirements for what they were tasked to do. The executive committee gave them conflicting direction. It was a very bad situation. One of the other participants in the meeting was bent on punishing them for failing and the meeting quickly was heading down a bad path. It definitely wasn’t very productive, and the person who didn’t deliver became extremely defensive. If I was in his situation I would have as well.
During this meeting I decided to reach out to him with empathy. I echoed his disappointment with the way things had worked out and made him realize that others recognized what really had happened. I also gave value to the things that he did accomplish. This really turned around the meeting and made it much more collaborative. It turned from a witch hunt with a defendant on the witness stand to a discussion about what we learned from the experience.
By showing empathy to someone, you are showing that you are listening to them. This makes them much more likely to really listen to you in return.
If you are interested in reading more about empathy as a piece of emotional intelligence see eqi.org .