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 empathyInspiring 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.
The 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
For more about empathy and developing empathic skill, see "Peek-a-Boo and Leadership," Point Lookout for August 30, 2006.
For 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
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- Hurtful Clichés: I
- Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or
"Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that
we use them without thinking. Maybe it's time for some thought.
- The prevalence of overwork has increased with the depth of the global recession, in part because employers
are demanding more, and in part because many must now work longer hours to make ends a little closer
to meeting. Overwork is dangerous. Here are some suggestions for dealing with it.
- Scope Creep and Confirmation Bias
- As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and
other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions,
is one of these.
- On Differences and Disagreements
- When we disagree, it helps to remember that our differences often seem more marked than they really
are. Here are some hints for finding a path back to agreement.
- Heart with Mind
- We say people have "heart" when they continue to pursue a goal despite obstacles that would
discourage almost everyone. We say that people are stubborn when they continue to pursue a goal that
we regard as unachievable. What are our choices when achieving the goal is difficult?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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