Lets Talk Empathy

April 12, 2021
Steven McCormack
2 mins
Wishy Washy

Empathy. A soft, feely kind of word. Usually uttered in soft and reassuring tones? Best reserved for the counsellor's office, correct?

I'd like to explore the darker side of our friend empathy; the ability to understand another's deepest motivations. This has been my most powerful tool when navigation tricky situations or negotiations. On the face of it, a simple enough task. But what is it that drives the other side of the table? What truly influences their thinking?

You can be quite shallow in your initial assessment. Money. Power. Status. Once you peel away more layers of the onion however, things get rather interesting. The real colour of life comes out. Consider this example; the overbearing middle manager. They have a strong desire to control and micromanage. They pester you with countless updates and ever tightening deadlines. You want to alleviate your reporting burden. What to do?

Release The Empathy!

First of all, step back. Zoom out. Strip your worldview of emotion and put yourself in their shoes. Understand their context. Not just professionally, but at home too. Where are the strains and stresses in their life? I know this may sound a little too personal, a tad stalkerish - but it is absolutely necessary. You want to reach the source of fears, hopes and dreams. And you'll be damn surprised what you find. Folks who once appeared aggressive, even oppressive, are actually just scrambling for some emotional peace. Figure that one out and work back from there.

Now back to our favourite middle manager. So you've figured out their context. The family pressures. The bonus expectations. The long commute. The short term thinking. The crappy spreadsheets. The new extension. You realise you are in fact fighting with a melting pot of stress, anxiety and fear - not the misguided attempts to maintain some control. And it turns out they are not quite the monster you imagine them to be. Work with the fear. Think about how to alleviate it - and improve your own life in the process.

This is a real life example from my own employment back catalogue. I stripped out my own negative energy and quickly identified the real motivations of a manager. In this case the solution was charmingly simple; a central spreadsheet satisfied their desire to control. I appealed to the attraction of less fear and gained a whole lot of autonomy in the process.

Empathy is not just for the workplace, either. It works for teachers, parents, siblings - anyone really. It can help you build relationships with folks of all shapes and sizes. And that ultimately brings you more peace, too. Not so wishy washy after all!

Signing out, Steven.

Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash.


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