Wednesday, November 11, 2020




“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”  Oprah Winfrey

Over the past several months, our country has experienced the most non-empathetic environment I can remember. Everyone has been shouting at each other and imagining that their rancorous arguing was changing someone’s mind, when in fact no one was listening and not one person’s mind was actually changed.

This is a dangerous place to be. The fabric of our society is fraying due to these divisions.  “I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization,” said Roger Ebert. “The death of human empathy is one of the earliest and most telling signs of a culture about to fall into barbarism,” according to Hannah Arendt. Sadly, in this tumult many friendships and familial relationships have been torn asunder.

I do not pretend to know how to fix what’s going on in our country, but I do have an idea about how we might repair schisms on a personal level. 

We must return to empathy, and it starts with simply being nice to one another. “The outward expression of empathy is courtesy.” Stewart Butterfield.  Somehow, a lot of folks have come to think that the challenges and injuries that they have experienced justify their striking out at others who see life differently. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one heals themselves by wounding another.

Empathy isn’t complicated. It starts with a desire to understand another human being.  In the words of C. JoyBell C., “empathy is the ability to step outside of your own bubble and into the bubbles of other people.” Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another. True empathy requires that you step outside your own emotions to view things from the perspective of the other person.

I like the way Brene Brown expressed it: “Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.” Unfortunately, most of us aren’t really listening when we think we are, especially when the other person holds a different viewpoint from us. “We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.” Carl Rogers.

There are powerful professional advantages to empathy. For example, empathy is the key to great sales and marketing. An old adage, though somewhat dated, remains true: "If you want to know what John Smith buys, you must see the world through John Smith's eyes."

Years ago, I learned another benefit to empathy in an unlikely setting: law school. By its nature, the legal profession tends to be adversarial, so it’s easy to think there is no place for empathy in that world. 

Rex E. Lee, my law school dean, was an extremely effective appellate attorney. He personally argued 59 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court as Solicitor General of the United States and in private practice. He taught his students that empathy would make them better advocates. He said: “You must fully understand both sides of the question before the court. If you can’t articulate your opponent’s side of the case as readily as your own, you really don’t know the strength or weakness of your own position.” His counsel has helped me in numerous situations over the past 40 years.

Are you looking for a wonderful way to create empathy in a one-to-one setting? Here’s a great idea from one of my favorite authors, Stephen R. Covey. He espoused the idea of the Native American talking stick as a way to listen empathically. In his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he describes this technique: 

The idea is that only the person holding the stick gets to make their point and they continue to speak on this point until they feel they have been fully understood by the listener. The other person is only permitted to speak insofar as they need to clarify what they’ve heard, or to demonstrate that they have understood the speaker. Before stating his or her own point, Person #2 must restate Person #1’s position to Person #1’s satisfaction.

Once that has occurred, Person #2 may state his or her own position, and Person #1 in turn must restate Person #2’s position to Person #2’s satisfaction before the conversation may move forward. 

As soon as Person #2 feels they had been understood, they pass the talking stick back to Person #1. After this occurs, Person #1 can begin again to explain their current thoughts.

Covey’s Indian Talking Stick principle is a powerful communication device for resolving disagreements and for exploring the possibility that there may be a superior answer that neither one of them held before. The best way forward may not be “your way” or “my way,” but a third way that arises from truly listening to and understanding each other.

Whether we use Covey’s talking stick approach, or we just slow down and start really listening to each other — even those we disagree with — we urgently need to find more empathy, individually and as a nation. I pray we can.

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