Shooting From The Hip…practicing empathy can have a transformative effect on individual relationships and organizational culture
Scene: Two colleagues, Lawrence and Eva, ride in an elevator, both sipping their morning-o-lattechino.
Lawrence: It’s a shame about that shooting in Oregon.
Eva: I know…
Lawrence: It really is time to have some serious gun control.
Eva: Sure, let’s just trample the Constitution.
If you’re an American, you likely had a reaction to the exchange laid out above. Perhaps you side with Lawrence on the issue of gun control. Perhaps you see things Eva’s way. Perhaps you think both are out of line for discussing such a polarizing topic in the workplace.
Whatever your reaction, the reality is that when – Not if – a polarizing topic is raised in the workplace, there are ways for Lawrence, Eva and the organization to be enriched by the dialogue rather than depleted. By developing an ability to engage difficult conversations and polarizing topics consciously, we foster a culture of trust, a foundation for the kind of inclusive environment that drives.
- superior team performance.
- desired business results.
“I’m pretty sure you think what I think. So, tell me what you think.”
One problem with organizations failing to address these topics effectively is that individuals tend to seek out those with whom they have the most in common and are most likely to agree. This tendency, though natural, can erode an organization by solidifying lines of difference. Essentially, we have our “Lawrences” and our “Evas” taking sides and disconnecting from the other “camp.”
The question is: Where else are we behaving this way? How does a culture that supports silos on these topics handle:
- strategic planning?
- committee formation?
- hiring decisions?
- leadership development?
- succession planning?
When we fail to include “Lawrence” and “Eva” in these dialogues, when we fail to have seats at the table for them both, we risk missing blind spots and make more likely the kind of group think that:
- limits team performance.
- suppresses innovation.
- caps business outcomes.
“I’ve never thought of it that way.”
You may be wondering, “So, what are best practices?” The answer: Practice Empathy.
That answer may not be what you expect, but practicing empathy can have a transformative effect on individual relationships and organizational culture. Notice that the answer is “Practice Empathy” and not “Be empathetic.” Organizations will not transform based on vague feelings of empathy, but by adopting practices and developing the requisite skills.
“The only way to walk a mile in other people’s shoes is to first take off your shoes.”
– Doug Harris (CEO, The Kaleidoscope Group)
- Listen. In order to practice empathy, we must listen empathetically. In order to listen empathetically, we must value the lens through which our colleague(s) sees the world. Listen for understanding. From this place, it is possible to disagree without becoming disagreeable.
Does that mean that we abandon our own values and beliefs? Absolutely not. However, listening empathetically allows us to show respect for our colleague, which builds trust, and allows any decision “to agree to disagree” to be borne of mutual respect and not a need to find our respective silos.
- Forget about your rights (& wrongs). When we practice empathy, we withhold judgement. By definition, polarizing topics are… well… polarizing. We tend to take hard stances and view the topic in a binary, “right vs. wrong” way. Further, there is a tendency to vilify, if not dehumanize, those on the wrong side of the issue. (By the way, the people on the “wrong” side think you’re the one who’s on the wrong side.)
It is critical that we approach challenging dialogues as experiences to be shared and not competitions to be won. There are two principles to keep in mind. First, those having the conversation need to recognize that everyone has an equal perspective, essentially the right to their opinion. Second, we must respect that some will have weighted input, when the topic is one that impacts them most directly or profoundly.
The second does not negate the first. The key is to weigh the input and recognize the fact that everyone has a right to their perspective within and beyond the dialogue.
- Manage Your Hot Buttons. Part of practicing empathy is being in touch with where we are on a given topic and how we are feeling during challenging conversations. The key is to respond, rather than to react.
One particularly effective way to manage hot button effectively is to probe and qualify. Consider Eva’s reaction:
Eva: “Sure, let’s just trample the Constitution.”
She may have felt that Lawrence was showing a basic disregard for the Constitution. However, her reaction lays the groundwork for a defensive reaction from Lawrence that could, in turn, lead to a horribly negative spiral in their communication.
Conversely, if Eva responded by probing and qualifying, she might have asked:
Eva: “When you say, ‘do something’, what do you mean?”
In doing so, she might have laid the groundwork for clarification from Lawrence and more likely, a healthy exchange that would strengthen their relationship and ultimately, the organization.
Practice, Practice, Practice.
“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”
– Yogi Berra (Baseball Legend)
When our professional relationships can make the difference between success and failure, we can’t afford to “shoot from the hip”, whether dealing with guns or any other polarizing issues. If we practice empathy, we will engage and navigate these discussions more effectively, fostering a culture of respect and trust.
Many of us might argue that we could all stand to have more empathy throughout our society. For now though, be ready to start with the elevator. When it comes to practicing empathy, practice makes perfect.
The Kaleidoscope Group