Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 1;   January 4, 2006: The Uses of Empathy

The Uses of Empathy

by

Even though empathy skills are somewhat undervalued in the workplace context, we do use them, for good and for ill. What is empathy? How is it relevant at work?
An iceberg in Antarctica's Gerlache Strait, March 1962

An iceberg in Antarctica's Gerlache Strait, March 1962. Photo by Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren, NOAA Corps (ret.), courtesy U.S. NOAA Photo Library.

Ginny waited patiently while Mort dipped another chip into the slightly-too-hot salsa and ate it. She knew that whatever he said would be worth the wait, because Mort had an almost-magical talent for inspiring teams. He picked up another chip and paused over the salsa.

"Inspiring people is simple," he began. "But you have to be where they are. That's why great generals eat what the troops eat."

Ginny had a vague idea of what he meant. "Be where they are. And by that you mean…"

"You have a sense of how they'll interpret what you say," Mort said. "And how they feel about the challenge, and what they're willing and able to do."

Ginny was beginning to get it. "Sounds a lot like empathy, but not so squishy."

Mort lit up. "Well, it is empathy, but in a broader sense than the usual squishy one."

Inspiring others is
a critical leadership
skill — one that
depends on empathy
Inspiring others is a critical leadership skill — one that depends on the ability to empathize with the people you want to lead.

Empathy is appreciating the inner state of others. We often associate empathy with a sensing of others' feelings, but because feelings are only part of our inner state, empathy is much more than appreciation of feelings.

One model of inner state is the Personal Iceberg, used by Virginia Satir and articulated later by her colleagues. In this model, inner state is a hierarchy of copings, feelings, perceptions, expectations, yearnings, and ultimately the Self. They called it an "iceberg" because so much of it is out of view. Empathy is appreciating all of these elements in others.

We need empathy not only to inspire others, but also when we're figuring out how to express something, or even whether to express it. While we're deciding, we need a sense of what the impacts of various options might be, which requires empathy. Here are some other applications of empathy skills.

Framing a message
To communicate effectively, it helps to have a feel for how your message will land, whether it's an apology, persuasion, congratulations, or something painful.
Timing and not-timing
Empathy helps you know when to act, and when not to act.
Leading, motivating, inspiring, and deterring
If your goal is to energize (or inhibit) others, the choices you make are more effective if you take into account the personal icebergs of those others.
Detecting overload
The usual indicators of overload are burnout or error rates. Empathy can help you detect overload before the damage is done.
Negotiating and dealing with conflict
Reaching solutions that appeal to all parties is easier with an understanding of the inner experience of all parties. Empathy helps.

OK, so empathy's a great thing, but how can we improve empathy skills? I'll cover that in a coming issue. Go to top Top  Next issue: Nine Project Management Fallacies: IV  Next Issue

For more about empathy and developing empathic skill, see "Peek-a-Boo and Leadership," Point Lookout for August 30, 2006.

Order from AmazonFor more on the Personal Iceberg, see V. Satir, J. Banmen, J. Gerber and M. Gomori, The Satir Model: Family Therapy and Beyond. Palo Alto: Science and Behavior Books, 1991. Order from Amazon.com

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

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Have you ever heard nasty rumors about yourself? When rumors are damaging, they can hurt our careers, our self-esteem, and even our health. Sadly, our response to rumors often compounds the serious damage they do.
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Your company has just done another round of layoffs, and you survived yet again. This time was the most difficult, because your best pal was laid off, and you're even more fearful for your own job security. How can you cope with survival?
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When the stream of unimportant events and concerns reaches a high enough tempo, we can become so transfixed that we lose awareness of the real and the important. Here are some suggestions for being with the Real.
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Coercion, physical or psychological, has no place in the workplace. Yet we see it and experience it frequently. We can end the use of presupposition as a tool of coercion, but only if we take personal responsibility for ending it.
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Performance appraisal practices and project retrospectives both rely on evaluating performance after outcomes are known. Unfortunately, a well-known bias — hindsight bias — can limit the effectiveness of many organizational processes, including both performance appraisal and project retrospectives.

See also Emotions at Work, Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Prof. Tom PettigrewComing February 21: The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable. Available here and by RSS on February 21.
Daffodils of the variety Narcissus 'Barrett Browning'And on February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.

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