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:

One negative outweighs a world of positivesWhen It Really Counts, Be Positive
When we express our ideas, we can usually choose between a positive construction and a negative one. We can advocate for one path, or against another. Even though these choices have nearly identical literal meanings, positive constructions are safer in tense situations.
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Diversity of perspectives is one of the great strengths of teams. Ideas contend and through contending they improve each other. In this process, criticism of ideas sometimes gets personal. How can we critique ideas safely, without hurting each other, while keeping focused on the work?
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Some of us are fortunate — we work for companies that make sure they have enough people to do all the work. Yet, we still work too many hours. We overwork ourselves by taking on too much, and then we work long hours to get it done. If you're an over-worker, what can you do about it?
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When a cell phone goes off in a movie theater, some of us get irritated or even angry. Why has the cell phone become so prominent in public? And why do we have such strong reactions to its use?
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Most of us have had way too much to do for so long that "too much to do" has become the new normal. We've forgotten what "enough to do" feels like. Here are some reminders.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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With hindsight, we sometimes recognize that we could have predicted the very thing that just now surprised us. Somehow, we missed the obvious. Why does this happen? Available here and by RSS on October 18.
Five almondsAnd on October 25: Workplace Memes
Some patterns of workplace society reduce organizational effectiveness in ways that often escape our notice. Here are five examples. Available here and by RSS on October 25.

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