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.

All about empathy

Have you ever said or done anything stupid? If not, congratulations! Maybe you should be reading a website for perfect people who don’t need help…

Now that it’s just us imperfect people here, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Everybody says and does stupid things sometimes. And we all hate it when we get called out on it. Especially when we didn’t realize we were the idiot in the room until everyone was looking at us.

When you’re communicating with other people, in business or in life, sometimes you’re going to be the idiot. And sometimes it’s going to be someone else. Either way, be gentle. If you see someone making a mistake, think about how you’d want them to handle it if you were the one making the mistake. Would you want an e-mail copied to everyone in the department making it clear you’re illiterate and incompetent? Or would you want a private message saying, hey, this doesn’t look like it will work, maybe re-evaluate?

The great thing about a friendly e-mail is if the person you’re talking to sees reason, they owe you one and they’ll appreciate that you looked out for them. If not, then you can forward that sucker everywhere, but you gave them a fair chance. A chance you’d like to have if it’s you that made the mistake.

So often, we get caught up in details about who’s right and who’s wrong and passing out credit. It seems like a great idea until you’re the one on the wrong side of an interaction. So basic Golden Rule stuff, if you want to work in an organization where when people make mistakes they get understanding and gentle correction, it starts with you. Make friends by looking out for other people when and where you can. The favor will be repaid.

Empathy and communication

“In politics, sincerity is everything. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” – Groucho Marx

I’ve talked before about the fact that effective communication has more to do with how you’re heard than what you say. One of the biggest problems we run into is assuming that everyone thinks like us, or at least that they should. I’ll forego the sermonette about the value of diversity of thought and how boring the world would be if things were like that. Bottom line: They aren’t like that. This means that part of effective communication is trying to understand how other people think.

What should you do to be a more empathetic communicator?

First of all, start on common ground and assume a common purpose. This means banal pleasantries to show that you, too, experience weather, followed by something related to what you’re working on. Don’t start off with religion or politics because they might have a different worldview from yours and 1) you don’t want to alienate them from you and 2) you don’t want to get into a discussion where your prejudgments about the kind of person you’re working with affect your ability to get what you need where goals are shared.

Second, listen. Some people reach out, some people want to be heard. Some can’t see where you’re going and others just don’t feel right about certain things. These sense metaphors for communication let you know 1) which metaphors to answer with to build rapport and 2) which metaphors to use if you want to convince someone of something.

Third, if you think the other person is an idiot, they may well think the same of you. You may both be right! But if you let transparent disdain for another person’s intelligence or ideas wreck your ability to work with them, there’s definitely at least one idiot in the conversation: you. So assume the best of other people till you have proof to the contrary and look for ways to engage with what they’re saying. If they have something to offer, awesome. If not, at least you haven’t made any enemies who might pop up and mess up other projects of yours at a later date.

In future posts, I’ll talk more about how to put yourself in another person’s shoes. But for now, keep in mind that when you engage with another person the quickest way to blow an opportunity is to win an argument you didn’t have to have. Think positively about the people you’re talking to and the prospect that you can get something done together and you’ll be on a much surer footing whether you decide to build a relationship or just get through the interaction before moving on to something better.