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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Empathy Experiment Continues ...

I found myself in the company of three of my favorite colleagues and leaders in my organization last week.  I am truly blessed to work with smart people that I genuinely like.  I enjoy going to business meetings because I like to hang out with these guys.

We had a great dinner preparing for a huge event.  We did good work and we laughed so hard I nearly cried.

On the way back,  we launched into a business discussion that was very close to my work, my heart, my job satisfaction.  I'm in sales.  My job can be excruciatingly hard. I'm not complaining, if you're not willing to sign up for the difficulty, don't sign up to be in sales. 

As we discussed the strategies, the possibilities of some changes, the people in these roles, the intent of these great leaders was all about problem solving.  That's what leaders get paid to do.  They like to do it.  They're good at it.  (at least these guys are)

Quickly the conversation became like a tiny ice pick chipping away at my armor exposing my frustrations and even deeper into my fears and fatigue.  I've been doing this job successfully for 12 years.  People sometimes forget that we old timers still have fears and a hefty dose of fatigue that we carry around.

I began to recognize the longing and gnawing ache for empathy.  I know intellectually there's no perfect answer that will satisfy me inside the challenges we were discussing.  It's complex and difficult, a spider web of possibilities all impacting one aspect of the company or another.

Then it hit me. I am no longer interested in a solution.  Now I just want some dang empathy!

I decide to move out of my own debate and problem solving mode and start to articulate some of my vulnerability, fear, and fatigue.  Slowly at first to invite empathy and test for response.

I was met with reassurance of my wonderfulness and how special I am, how talented.  Who doesn't want some of that feedback?  I didn't.  In fact it was infuriating.  I knew they had no idea those wonderful comments were having the complete opposite effect on my heart.  These guys genuinely care about me and would never intentionally hurt me.

We were back at the hotel ready to part ways and I felt panicked. I wanted some freakin' empathy and I wasn't leaving there without it!

Then it happened.  I cracked.  Just a little.  I opened my mouth to gently tell these guys that I just wanted them to listen and it happened.  I became a "girl".  I teared up a little, my lip quivered.  Not the ugly cry, not the snot running on your top lip cry. Just a little crack in the corporate armor.  I'd like to refer to it more like the beer commercial for dudes that says "some of my awesome leaked out".

Nothing sets three grown men into more of a panic then a grown woman colleague about to cry.  So they ratcheted up the compliments. They were coming so fast with so much drippy syrup my stomach started to hurt. 

 They really were killing me with kindness.  My head was listening to them coming at me and my heart was being completely irrational and thinking things like, "I'll just move away, leave this corporate craziness and write books and live in a shack." Then one of them started to get it.  He leaned over and gave a friendly punch in the arm to the one that had just stepped back to reload his arsenal of kindness. He stopped and literally sat back on the curb.  I think subconsciously I had knocked him so far off his game for a minute he had to stop and rethink everything about what to do next.  I didn't want a problem solved or another compliment.  Just  some heartfelt listening.

I'll solve most of my own problems willingly and words of affirmation don't even show up on my needs list.  

When I ask you to listen and you start giving advice, you have not done what I have asked. When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn't feel that way, you are trampling on my feelings. When I ask you to listen and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem, you have failed me, strange as it may seem. Listen! All I ask is that you listen; not talk or do -- just hear me. 
Ralph Roughton, M.D. - page 110, Habit 5 The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Signature Manual 

Once they let me share some feelings, fears, and fatigue, I felt better almost instantly ......except for the truckload of awkward that was dumped on the curb beside us.

Finally feeling a little calmer and more than a little spent myself, I let them off the hook and said, "Guys, don't panic, don't call a special breakfast meeting tomorrow to schedule my therapy or talk about my mental breakdown.  I'm fine.  I just needed a little listening and empathy.  Now if you'll excuse me, I have a big event in the morning and I need some sleep."  All said with a smile and my usual healthy dose of sarcasm to let them know that I had returned to my usual self.

I think I might have heard a collective sigh as they all finally exhaled.

I'm not writing this to trash talk anyone.  I'm writing this to say that empathy is hard.  Most of the time we're not nearly as good at it as we think we are.  It takes awareness and practice. 

It's also important to note that I've known these guys for 12 years.  They're like family to me.  I'd do anything for them and I know they feel the same about me.  We get so comfortable with people that we forget the natural laws of human effectiveness are always at play.  Even after 12 years.

I think this is why so many marriages suffer. We become so comfortable with each other and our desire to help and fix and solve problems gets in the way of feeling each others feelings.  That's what we all really want.  I was just crazy enough to stand on the street and stomp my feet and shed a little tear until the tough guys would give me some.

Empathy sweet empathy.

How are things with your empathy experiment?  Any stores to share?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Empathy Experiment

Could Empathy Change Our World?

It started last night as I packed for a business trip.  My daughter begging me not to go.  She's ten and my business travel is much harder now that she can accurately express her distaste for my schedule.

I try not to tell her I "have" to go because ultimately my career is my choice, so I tell her that I love my job and this trip is an important part of my career.  I don't apologize because I don't want her to think this trip is being "done to her".  So I just listen.  I listen to her complain, whine and cry a little.  Then I hug her and I say, I know you don't like this honey. I know it feels uncomfortable for you when I'm gone.  I'll come back as quick as I can and we'll have a great weekend.

All morning I try to quietly validate her feelings.  Give voice that I can hear her, that I care about her.  It doesn't change her feelings about my trip but it also doesn't escalate any further like it has in the past. Stay calm, listen with your head and your heart.  Give space and pay homage to the feelings.

Empathy, sweet empathy.

I arrive at the airport, check in, all good.  I stop at the gift shop to get a bottle of water.  I approach the counter and the lady says, "I wish we would just close this place down."

I look around to see if she's talking to me and since I'm the only other person in the shop, I try to solve this puzzle.  I don't respond because I'm not sure what the right response is.  So I give a little half smile, empathy-like.  She continues, invited by my smile.  "All we ever sell is water and gum, might as well shut this place down."  Now my business consultant head is curious.  Does she make commission from these "Hoosier Daddy" t-shirts and US Weeklys?  So I ask, "does it matter that you sell other things?" I'm trying not to take it personally that I'm pulling out a $20 for my Smart Water.  I did buy the big bottle, almost $4 bucks! She continues with frustration, "Oh yea it matters, they'll call and harass us, yell at us, tell us this store is a disgrace." I simply say, "Oh, I see." Still the half smile, still with caring.

Then she realizes that I'm listening.  Really listening.  I think this takes her off guard. She then says, "I'm just fed up, do you ever get that way?"  Absolutely I tell her, absolutely.  She continues but her frustration is shrinking as she talks,

"I'm tired.  All I do is work.  I feel like I just want to sit down somewhere and cry.  Do you ever get like that?"  Again, absolutely, "sometimes it helps to sit down and cry." I admit to her.

"I worked all night at FedEx last  night, came in here this morning, everyone just tells me how bad I look.  That's not helping, now I feel insulted. I know I look bad, because I feel bad, I just want to rest."

I stop myself from judging her negative attitude and think that maybe she feels bad because her attitude might be contributing and I realize, I know nothing about her real story.

I simply say, "yea, a body needs rest, a mind needs rest, your soul needs rest. I bet you do feel run down."

Then she says, "I'm just venting."  I think she's still more than surprised that I'm listening, with my heart.

I tell her I'll say a little prayer for her that she gets some much needed rest tonight.

She tells me she only has 2 hours before she has to go to her other job after this one.  I smile a little and say, "Do me a favor, in those 2 hours don't do one load of laundry, don't do the dishes, don't do anything but lay down and take a little bit of rest."  She smiles, "I do need to take a bath."  I smile back and say, "Okay bathe first, it will make your short nap even better."

I gather my change, turn to leave and say, "take care of you."  She smiles back.

Maybe this little conversation didn't have earth shattering impact on her and she's probably forgotten about me completely by now but I couldn't help notice that in that short time she softened, just a little.

Makes me wonder, could we really solve many of our issues with the secret weapon of empathy?  I know there are days I'd pay some big money for a healthy dose myself.

Let's try, just you and me and see what happens in our own little experiment.

Empathy Starters:

You have to stop talking and start listening to practice empathy.

Empathic Listening is not just waiting for your turn to talk.  It's listening with your head and your heart.  When listening empathically, you're listening to understand how the other person is feeling as much or more as what they are saying.

Don't interrupt and don't tell your story and don't dig around asking questions. Look them in the eye, heart to heart and connect, listen, care.

Let them peel their own onion.  Life is full of layers and complexity.  When you truly listen you give people the space to peel back those layers and think through this complexity outloud.  By listening empathically you allow people to peel back those layers and to think through things in a way they can sometimes solve their own problems.  Often it's not about solving a problem, it's just about being heard.

Your true intent counts more than your technique with empathy. If you listen with your heart, people will feel your intent. That's what matters.

So what do you say, ready to give it a shot?

I'd love for you to post your experiences here.

"The deepest need of the human heart is to be understood."  -
-- Dr. Stephen R. Covey