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The executive who found empathy

12 March 2014

“No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Theodore Roosevelt

I could feel from the moment I answered the call that something had dropped. The scratchy voice with an audible lump being swallowed. On the line was an executive with the nickname bulldog. I had wondered after working with him for more than a year whether it was a name given to him for appearance or on account of his behaviour. Right now that did not matter. What I saw in this moment was no bulldog. I saw someone who had the softness of a puppy and I could not wait to find out why.

Bulldog is working on a major restructuring project involving personnel and resources across a wide geography. Typically he is assigned these roles for his pragmatic take no prisoner barrier to getting the job done. His company is a large multi-national that hires me to teach NLP to the Management group. In NLP training with his executive buddies I have always found entertainment and plenty of rough attitude.  

He was finalising the implementation of the restructure and on this day he’d met a group of young workers for the first time. Normally he would just say what needed to be said and move on. Today was proving to be different, gut wrenchingly so. Using skills of sensory awareness, rapport and a deeper listening bulldog was admitting to himself that he saw human life in a completely different way to how he’d ever seen it before. He was trying to explain to me that he had this weird feeling in his body, butterflies in his stomach. He was absolutely terrified that his emotional state would be visible to others. Bulldog needed information, skills and resources because in his words he was starting to think he actually cared.

Empathy is defined as the ability to appreciate or understand and share the feelings of another.  It is different from sympathy which is to feel pity for someone’s misfortune.

In life empathy is an important resource to have. It enables you to be authentic with yourself and others. With empathy you can safely express yourself without feeling vulnerable and needing to take on the role of rescuing others. Empathy also enables a stress release valve to be activated as internalising feelings can be uncomfortable and unhealthy. Having empathy also enables others to see your authentic self.

Empathy has it’s historical linguistic origins in ancient Greek. Psychologist Edward Titchener (1867 - 1927) introduced the term empathy into the English language. It was however Theodore Lipps (1851-1914) who was able to better articulate what Titchener had thought and was able to express how empathy was an internally evoked reaction. In the late 19th and early 20th Century the term empathy was deemed to be the primary means of gaining knowledge into another person’s mind. The theory was then almost neglected until many years later. In developing NLP in the 1970’s Bandler and Grinder created a list of presuppositions that are closely linked to looking at context and content in behaviours and to respecting another person’s model of the world. They suggest that people are not their behavior and this enables a separation where instead of taking the reactions of another person personally you can instead use filters including empathy to see their reactions in context.

Learning how to have empathy serve you in a life and in the workplace is an important aspect of being a great leader.  The be effective I have some suggestions:

1. Use “I” language to own your words and your behavior without deflecting.
2. Preface difficult conversations with the wording, “This may not land well and…”
3. Use repeating the other person’s words back to them to gain empathy. For example, “a moment ago you said….”
4. Appreciate that everyone has their own model of the world, beliefs, values and reactions.  Their viewpoint is valid to them and needs nothing more than your respect.
5. When wanting to point something out to someone that they may be missing use the opening statement, “My story is telling me…..” followed by, “can you help me to understand this?”

What if you feel overwhelmed by empathy and think that you are exposed to vulnerability as a result? See if a trusted friend or colleague can support you by giving you their viewpoint. Ask yourself the question, “how can I better support the outcome I want to achieve here?”

This was the day bulldog realised for the first time that he has empathy. He realised that understanding and appreciating another person’s reaction is probably one of the most powerful gifts a leader can give anyone else. Bulldog realised that everyone’s life journey is about space and time. He felt happier than ever, more able to connect with people and found a new level of kindness in the people he needed to deliver difficult news to. The universe supports everyone’s individual journey and even though he felt like the news he was bringing was all about loss, he was able to give many examples from his own life of opportunity disguised as loss. He felt the groundedness in listening, being empathetic and using his “I” words to own what he had to share.

As you can see there is leadership in empathy and I’m sure you are telling yourself that everyone has their own journey and filters. We cannot predict the reactions of others and leadership is about the flexibility to hold space and be there to support and show you care. If you feel this will help you to be an even better leader try it.
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