Ever since starting this blog I've read a lot of articles and stories about empathy. I've seen stories written by psychologists, by medical doctors, and by economists. All of these people have a podium and are using their influence to say that empathy is good, and here's how it's good for people who work in 'my profession'. I say that anyone can join this party; empathy is good for any job where you have to work with other people.
For example, I work for a large company. I have co-workers, managers and clients. If I'm thinking about how my clients/co-workers/managers are feeling, then I'm listening to them. Developing those 'listening well' skills is a great way to do business because:
1. It helps me to get along better with my clients. I'm spending effort listening to their needs, and getting them what they need within the constraints of my job. So my clients (in turn) like me more, and want to keep doing business with me. They give me great feedback after projects are complete, so my manager is happy (see #3 below).
2. It helps me to get along better with my co-workers. I'm spending time listening to not just what my co-workers are asking me to do but also how they are feeling about the work.* So my co-workers (in turn) find me easy to work with, and want to keep me on interesting projects. If I stay busy I'm more likely to stay employed. Also they give me great feedback after our projects are complete, so my manager is happy (see #3 below).
3. It helps me to get along better with my managers and leadership in general. Also, as per #1 and #2 above, feedback from others is positive so my manager wants to keep me around. My manager may also want me to develop further, so I can keep spreading these streams of empathy around the company.
What do you do? Would empathy help in your job?
*I'm assuming that you've spent time, at one point in your life, listening to a co-worker complain about work. That is not what I'm talking about here; I'm talking about listening to the person who is having trouble admitting that they made a mistake, and needs to express it without feeling like they'll be beat up for it. If someone had not been there for me, letting me know it was okay to make mistakes and move on, I wouldn't be good at what I do.
I spend time every day talking on the phone. Building empathy over the phone, like building empathy in person, takes effort. I can tell you that it's completely worth it.*
The other day I had a problem; I wasn't getting money I was owed on my credit card. I called the helpdesk, feeling a little mad about this, and a lady's voice says, "Hello, welcome to Credit Card ABC Rewards technical services desk, how can I help you?"
"Hi there, how are you today?"
Even though I'm mad I have to start every conversation with a stranger this way. If I do, I instantly pull them out of their pre-recorded voice mode and into normal-person voice. Most people respond instantly with something real.
She says, "I'm doing...pretty well, actually." I say, "That's great" and already start to feel a little calmer.
She goes back into working mode with, "So, how can I help you?" So I describe the problem in detail.
She replies with a friendly, "Okay let me look up your account. Hmm, well it looks like it's working fine."
So basically she's saying that I'm wrong, or I made a mistake. I could react with anger as I've done before, but instead I say, "Well, actually, it's not, because of reason A, historical problem B and..." I'm feeling calm, because I'm thinking of her as a person. I'm actively trying to not be angry at the system not working the way it should, or at her for telling me that I'm wrong.
"Hmm....Let me check something;. I think I've seen this issue before, just one moment."
She's not fighting me or telling me I don't know what I'm talking about, perhaps because of her training, but also perhaps because I started out treating her like a person and not a machine to be yelled at. I believe that she's trying to help me because she sees me as a person too.
She said, "Okay, I see the problem, yes that's right. Okay you should be all set."
Great! We're all done and there was no anger, no stress. Just a problem getting solved. I admit this was easier than most helpdesk issues but it still serves my point.
We kept going. I asked her to explain what had happened, and to walk me through what she was doing, which she did. We stayed on the phone, me asking questions about how the software/website worked, her answering them and making sure I understood. She said, "I'm going to date myself by saying this, but this system is slower than a typewriter" and we both laughed.
At this point I didn't WANT to hang up the phone. I was happy to talk to this person, both because she made it a pleasant experience AND because I made efforts to be pleasant. When we said good-bye and wished each other 'have a good day' it was meaningful.
In one phone conversation we went from 'angry' to 'neutral' to 'positive'. What can you do in your next phone call with a stranger? Have you tried this?
*Note that there's a great group of people proving every day that telephone empathy works and makes a difference, through The Parents Circle. Israelis and Palestinians finding ways to talk, listen and really communicate to each other.
About a month ago, the US Government was in the middle of a political stalemate. Our elected leaders were on opposite sides of a fence, glaring at each other from between the slats. At the time, I heard lots of arguments from people who supported one side, some who supported the other.
When my friends and family started discussing these topics, at first I recoiled. I'm not one who likes to get in the middle of a ruckus, and this seemed like a doozy of a fight. These were also political arguments, which I know from experience are also emotional ones. If I really want to start a fight among friends, all I have to do is start talking politics.
Sometimes I think our political system has more layers than a baklava. There are the public layers; the ones we see on the news media and the layers we see when we talk to our local representatives. Then there are the private layers of dealmaking between the players (elected officials, lobbyists, assistants to officials and lobbyists, business people with influence) that we mostly don't see at all.*
As the days of the shutdown continued, it became more and more likely that I was going to have to talk to someone about how I felt about the shutdown. This came to a head one day with my good friend W, who asked me how I felt about what was going on.
I said that it seemed that nobody really wanted to make a deal, and they all just want to take sides and place blame. She wasn't happy and started to argue with me.
I said, "Look, I hear you. But - I really think that if the people involved were able to listen to each other with empathy, then we wouldn't have a hard line stalemate. We would have some real negotiation."
I talked about how I took this course in negotiation tactics about a year ago, which was based on a book.
The course focused on the idea that if you negotiate over positions, nobody really wins. If my position wins, then your position loses. Our relationships also suffer, so even though I win, I lose. In general, the book and the course talk about how there's no advantage to taking a hard line, or a soft line position.
However, if you get people together and ask them to work past the emotional reactions, that there's usually a place you can find a real connection. To put it another way, if I see you (the person across the negotiating table) as a person, if I can empathize with you, then I can see and understand the underlying problem that's behind the issues. I can stop seeing this as "your issue" or "my issue". Instead it becomes "the problem" that needs solving.
For this method to work we also have to believe that I'm a smart person, that you're a smart person, and together we can find a great solution to this problem. There's no trick; but each side has to believe that they can work together to come up with the answer. An answer that will be a 'win' for both sides.
Her response was to tell me that the real problem with the government stalemate was that the people in charge of making the deals didn't have the power to make these decisions. I said, "Of course they do, they are the ones at the table." She said, "No, they don't, because they can't vote for anything without making their supporters unhappy, and then they won't be re-elected."
I replied with, "Well, then that's a real issue behind the government shutdown. Instead of walking away from the table, they can be negotiating about what would make their supporters happy." They can push past their emotional reactions to each other, stop seeing each other as 'the enemy' and work out a better solution.
The conversation moved on.
A few weeks later the stalemate ended when one side of the negotiating table gave in to the other side's demands, as a result of growing pressure from the American people. I didn't see that anyone in either party was really listening to one another, and I don't see that our leaders will do any better next time. I hope they will.
*Of course, all of my comments here are based on the top layer; I don't have any real idea of what's going on behind the scenes in Washington. I, like most of the American people, am basing my ideas on the media representation of politics. I also see that the media layer is hidden behind another layer; the political leanings of the reporters and the networks they work for. Definitely NOT a sweet layered baklava, it's more like a raw onion.
In high school, I played drums in a rock band. We were three girls (me, D and A) with old instruments, taking our best shot at "Smoke on the Water" in a scummy practice studio. It was great fun.
The building with the practice studio was completely ridiculous. It was a run down building with loft size spaces up five flights of stairs. There may have been an elevator, I don't remember. There were walls of rusty exposed pipes, and everything was covered in black paint. The restroom I recall vividly - because it wasn't really a room. It was an open, dark hallway with a dirty seat-less toilet smack in the center. A bare bulb swung from a cord about 15 feet above my head while I did my business (and you can be sure I did it really, really fast in that place).
The practice rooms themselves were pretty good, although I wouldn't go so far as to call them 'nice'. Most of them had usable drum kits (again, not 'nice'), they all had amps and mic stands, and for $10 an hour I could make as much noise as I wanted. I could do paradiddles for half an hour, badly, and nobody would mind. I could pretend to be Larry Mullen, Jr., or Ringo Starr, and it felt real.
We started meeting there for our practice sessions. After some of our sessions, we would all go back to A's place (she was our guitarist) and hang out. We could talk about our insecurities, dream about the bands (and guys) we liked, and revel in how amazing it felt to take off our bras at day's end and just be sweaty chicks.
One time, we were walking back to A's place when our bassist D cornered me. She wanted to tell me her story. I couldn't believe her at first, because her life was so different than any life I'd known.
Her family hated her, she said. "They want to kick me out. I don't do drugs, but they keep accusing me." I asked her why and she said she didn't know. Then she said, "Sometimes I feel like I'm not myself. It's like I blackout, and have these missing times where I don't know what's happened for hours."
I thought about how well I knew her. Did I think she did drugs? Did I think they were falsely accusing her? Should I be the supportive friend? She was clearly upset, and when I didn't immediately say anything she said, "Never mind, forget it." and skipped ahead to talk to A.
Back at A's place, after sitting on the floor and chatting for a bit I saw that some of A's left arm was covered in little marks. They looked like scars. She saw me looking and said, "Sometimes I cut myself, y'know? No big deal."
D rolled up her sleeve. "Yeah, me too." they looked at each other and laughed. It blew my tiny teenage mind. I was scared, and confused. Who does that? Who hurts themselves on purpose, and then laughs about it?
I must have had a crazy look on my face, or how I acted the rest of that night threw them off, because a week later they kicked me out of the band.
Now I wonder what happened to them, and where their lives took them.