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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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
- And on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.
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Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.