Change Work February 2012

Why should I care?

empathy:    n    the ability to understand and share the feelings of another

How is it that you can feel an instant distrust or dislike for some people whilst being engaged, moved or inspired by others?  They may be saying essentially the same thing, but there's something about the way they say it that either turns you on or turns you off.

Sometimes this can happen because an aspect of their appearance, voice, accent, gestures etc is, for you, associated with a past event.  They remind you of a good time or a bad time and you experience again the feelings you had back then.  And this can happen without you being consciously aware of the connection.  You don't know what it is, " ... but there's something about them ..."

But there's also this thing we call "instinct".  You pick up little signals, again unconsciously, that you use to form an impression of what the other person wants.  You have a "feeling" about what their motivation is and, if it's selfish in nature, you're likely to respond defensively.  They may be saying that they only want what's best for you, but you just know that isn't true.

This applies in leadership and management as well as in selling.  Crudely, it's always about "what's-in-it-for-me?"

Why should anyone care about what you want if you don't care about them?  But "caring" is an emotion!  We don't want any of that at work do we? You have to insulate yourself from any emotional involvement, don't you?

So, if you've got to give someone bad news, you can do it in a matter-of-fact way, even briskly, to save yourself from feeling bad or embarrassed by their emotional display. This might get you off the hook but leaves them to deal with the issue on their own. How much loyalty does that earn you?

If you want people to follow you - either as their team leader or as an influencer - then emotional involvement is part of the price.  It's all about empathy.  If they believe that you understand and share their feelings then they're more likely to be receptive to your message. More likely to trust you.

So, how do you get to understand other people's feelings?  How can you see the situation from their point of view?

When you know someone really well you can, to a certain extent, anticipate how they'll respond to what you have to say. Then you can plan the words and delivery to maximise the chances of a positive outcome - for both of you.  If you don't know them that well, you can still prepare for a "difficult" conversation by deliberately adopting their point of view, by taking their "perceptual position".

It may be that you habitually review past meetings, or imagine future ones, from your own perspective: looking out of your own eyes, as if you were actually there, as opposed to seeing a "movie" - with yourself in it.  This "own view" is known as First Position.

In this position, you are yourself and you see the other person in the same way that you've always seen them and your feelings about them are the same as they always were. But how much of your perception of them is based on your own view of the world?

When you next need to prepare for a difficult meeting, perhaps with someone you're not very comfortable with, try sitting down with an empty chair facing you.  Imagine the other person sitting there.  You're in First Position and you will be well aware of what you think about that other person and what your expectations are for the meeting.  Take a few moments to explore all of this - especially your feelings about the situation.

Now, physically move to the other chair and imagine that you are that other person, sitting there, looking at you. In this Second Position you are the other person.  When you use the word "I" you mean them!  You take on their values, beliefs and opinions as far as you can - and that might be a lot more than you would have expected.

In this position, look at the person facing you (that's the usual you) and review what you think about them.  How do they come across to you?  Friendly, and helpful or arrogant and bossy?  Confident and competent or hopelessly floundering? You can be completely honest!

Still in Second Position, review what you want from this meeting.  What's possible?  What's likely?  What are you expecting the other "you" to do?

When you've thoroughly explored this new perceptual position, get up and move to one side, so that you can see both chairs and imagine both people present.  This is Third Position - the observer.  In this position you are removed from the emotional content of the meeting. You might still have feelings about it - but you aren't directly involved as a player.

What can you now see and hear that's different from the other two positions?  What do you, the observer, feel about what's going on?

After experiencing Third Position for a while, move back to your original chair - back to First Position - yourself.  What have you learnt about the other person and the situation?  How has your understanding developed?  What can you do in the real meeting to achieve a better outcome for both of you - and for all of the other people who could be affected?

This technique is useful in preparing for meetings and also for reviewing them afterwards: perhaps things didn't go very well and you want to understand what happened, and hence how to do better next time.

Use it for:

So, try experiencing the world from someone else's perspective.  It will earn you trust and influence.  And it's nowhere near as scary as it sounds!