What is Strategic Empathy?

Some people can’t help but putting themselves in other people’s shoes. Their heart races at the scary part of the movie and they’re sad all day if a co-worker is having a bad day. Other people may be unaware of the social nuances of what is going on around them. But even the extremely empathetic experience other people’s thoughts and feelings through their own lens.

Strategic Empathy is a technique for understanding what the other person in your communications is thinking, and getting past the notion that they should feel the same way you do. There are two especially important components: Looking for the win-win and steering clear of the win-lose. Let’s say that you are having trouble getting a co-worker to do their part of a project. You have to try to understand what may be holding them back. But more than that, you have to look for a way that they will benefit along with you and the company if they pull it together. As important, you are looking for a way to not get them in trouble with your manager or their manager if you don’t have to. This may involve offering to trade tasks so they can focus on something more compatible with what they’re struggling with, for example. When you do this, you should make it clear that you’re making the suggestion to help and if it won’t help the other person should suggest something else.

Using Strategic Empathy does not meaning that you let yourself be taken advantage of. It’s more about building a bank of goodwill and favors that you can call in later. This is why it’s so important to not only look for the win-win, but avoid the win-lose. This is dealing with people that you are going to have to continue to work with. You want them on your side because somewhere down the road it may be you who needs something. Creating a collaborative atmosphere will not only earn you favors to call in from this person. It will also create an image of you as a helpful and understanding person, which will also make others more likely to be helpful and understanding for you.

What’s the difference between Strategic Empathy and being a nice person?

Strategic Empathy is deliberate, and calculated. Even when you’re having a bad day yourself, you still want to play the part of the helpful and understanding co-worker. Maybe especially – you may need to monitor yourself more to play the part when your heart’s not in it. Further, it is not a touchy-feely dream about universal and unending harmony. It is a deliberate effort to shape the social environment in which you work to reduce frictions you know are inevitable. This is a place where you have the power to change not just yourself but those around you in a way that is ultimately to everyone’s advantage. So the next time you realize you’d like to give a coworker a good talking to, or maybe have a talk with your boss, think about what you can do first to give them a chance to do better and yourself a chance to be the good guy. If that doesn’t work, then you can escalate.

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