This month I want to talk about empathy. It’s such an important skill (yes, skill, because it is something you can develop with practice) for anyone who wants to lead a team or do great things, and yet it’s so misunderstood and often undervalued.
The most common misunderstanding I see is thinking that empathy is something we build for the benefit of others almost as a gift to them. But developing it is really an act of enlightened self interest because it helps us frame requests in language people will more easily understand and therefore helps us get what we want.
Empathy can also help us really see other people and what they are capable of, and what they aren’t, which prevents us from going to people for things they can’t give us ( like asking a narcissist for emotional support).
FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss says that empathy is THE key to getting what you want in any negotiation. This is because deeply understanding someone’s position (even if you don’t agree with it) is the key to finding solutions where everyone can win. And if one party feels they are losing, reaching agreement is so much harder than when both feel they are winning.
Another misunderstanding I see is people thinking that empathy is simply putting yourself in another’s shoes, meaning we try to develop it by imagining ourselves in their circumstances. This is part of it of course, but in reality who we are directly impacts how others treat us. I can’t possibly know what it’s like to walk through the world as a different race or gender — or even what it’s like to be a shorter, or taller, white male for that matter.
Empathy is about getting an intuitive sense of what it’s like to be another person rather than being about a simple logical accounting of their reasons for doing things. Developing it can be fun even.
One way to develop empathy is through fiction created by people from backgrounds different than yours. I love the work of Octavia Butler and N. K. Jemisin not only because they tell great stories but because they tell them from the perspective of women of color. I’m informed and entertained and develop a feel for an experience of the world that’s adjacent to, but different from, my own.
Seeing the world from another’s perspective enriches our world. It’s not always easy. I still struggle to even want to see the world from the perspective of some people (usually those I feel ideologically opposed to), but I never regret doing it. Here’s a great IG slideshow on what empathy is.
One other benefit of empathy is unwinding The Fundamental Attribution Error. This is a cognitive bias that makes us assume someone’s behavior is due to something intrinsic in their character rather than an understandable response to their life experience. When we say to ourselves “That person is just crazy, immoral, or dumb,” we are often shutting ourselves off from good information about why they do what they do — and therefore what we can do to solve problems we have with them.
In addition to consuming the narrative fiction I mentioned above — and also TV and movies made by and for people from different backgrounds than yours — I recommend these resources:
“Mad Men, Furious Women,” by Zoe Scaman: This article was written by a former colleague of mine — someone I have deep respect for as a thinker and strategist. In this piece she details her stories, and the stories of other women, about the sexual harassment they all have had to endure while working in advertising. I wish I could say I was surprised but I’m not. It is not an easy read — and has also forced me to do some deep personal examination of my own behavior over the years — but is very worth it.
Exterminate All the Brutes, by Raoul Peck: This documentary series is a masterwork that intertwines the filmmakers personal biography and world history of colonialism and genocide. It is lyrical and deeply moving.
Letters to My White Male Friends by Dax-Devlon Ross: This is a new book by a Black lawyer whose work I became aware of through a podcast called Conspirituality. In it he tells a few clear and pointed stories from his life. It’s an engaging and even poetic read, and one I’ll gladly dip into again.
1619 Project: This work of long-form journalism is back in the news due to Nikole Hannah-Jones and the UNC tenure drama. But the piece itself is a worthy read and even re-read about Black history in the U.S.
Scene on Radio: This is a podcast out of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Film. Each season focuses on a different set of issues. It is well researched and tells many fascinating stories. I recommend all of them, but “MEN,” “Seeing White,” and “The Land That Never Has Been Yet” are particularly worthy and engaging listens.
And don’t forget to have some fun. I’ve had a great time watching these shows that tell stories from perspectives and identities that are not my own: Blackish, Lovecraft Country, Watchmen, Special, Feel Good, and Everythings’ Gonna Be Okay to name just a few.
And speaking of fiction, the wonderful podcast Buffering the Vampire Slayer (that breaks down every episode of Buffy one at a time) just did a great special episode on the portrayal of mental and physical disabilities in film.
Finally, while this may not be about empathy per se, it is about how sweet relationships can be even through hardship — it’s Alex’s and my favorite new song, “All That by Sparks” (also watch the new documentary about the band!).
What recommendations do you have for me?
Co-Founder of The Alignment Company
PS: I’ve held a variety of leadership positions and advisory roles over the years including design director of a major newspaper and consultant to leaders of organizations (multinationals, local nonprofits and everything in between).
These days I coach and advise leadership teams to get everyone aligned and pulling in the same direction.
I also work as a dedicated in-house facilitator and fixer for organizations going through deep transformation.
People usually find me when they have high stakes projects that need to go well. It may be that their team feels out of sync, decision making is (needlessly) difficult, or that there’s confusion about who owns what and why.
My work helps improve culture and operations — aligning teams on all levels so they can be their best.
If you think a conversation might be helpful, you should reach out.