Empathy – now more than ever

(Note, and note well: empathy does not ever mean agreement. It merely means deep understanding – and with this depth of understanding, we have far greater capacity and power to create positive change.)

I am stunned. The level of hatred and anger evident in Charlottesville on August 12th is inconceivable to me. And yet, I must conceive of it because it happened.

The ripples continue to spread. Our political leaders squabble and fail to provide guidance, solidarity, or any path to healing. Journalists report vastly disparate perspectives. On Facebook, I and others are berated as complicit because “you haven’t said anything.”

It’s unbelievably hard to even think about empathy in this maelstrom of grief, outrage, fear, hatred, discord, and chaos.

Yet if we do not at least attempt to understand the emotions that drive people to do these things – we will not be able to create change.

It’s natural to condemn them for what they did. Racists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, violent, angry, destructive, hate-filled people – the injury, pain, and havoc they cause is profoundly wrong.

It seems weirdly unnatural – and almost impossibly hard – to pause and wonder … why?

Why did they do this? What has driven them to this rage and violence? Why do people like them do things like this?

But if we don’t understand – if we don’t know why – we will not prevent future violence. And we cannot heal from past violence.

Because there are more people like them out there, ready to do things like this.

Yes, what they did was wrong. But without understanding, we cannot fix the underlying problems that create these situations.

Without empathy, we cannot understand at the level necessary to find a path forward.

And then there are people like us

People like us stand against hatred and violence.


I see great beauty, such as the candlelight vigil in Charlottesville on Wednesday evening.

But I also see people struggling to understand each other even within the “people like us” community.

Any of us who are on Facebook have read the posts declaring, “If you’re not saying anything, you’re complicit!”, and seen the comments directed at specific people, accusing them of agreeing with the violence and racial hatred because they haven’t spoken out publicly – or because what they have said isn’t 100% aligned with what the commenter thinks and feels.

I don’t know what my neighbors may be thinking, feeling, or doing, never mind a casual connection on Facebook. Do you?

I don’t know what capacity – physical, emotional, or financial – any individual has to take action in any way. Do you?

do know that different people have different strengths and preferences.

And I firmly believe that the wellbeing of the world is best served when each of us takes action in our own individual ways. For one person, that could be writing a check to support an anti-hatred cause; for someone else, it will be walking in the front lines of a protest march; for someone else, it may be comforting a distraught friend or colleague.

And for those who are already overwhelmed by what life is asking in this moment, maybe it will be lighting a candle one evening, or holding the intention to walk in peace through the demands of daily life.

We don’t know.

So let’s have empathy and, yes, compassion for ourselves and for other people like us, who condemn hatred and violence, even as we seek to understand why this is happening.

In an interview Wednesday evening, Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said that we must “take responsibility for what we can do, not what we can say.”

I agree.

And I would point out that she asks us to take responsibility for our own actions, not for anyone else’s.

gljudson Empathy, Leadership

How do you empathize with someone who’s WRONG?

A reader sent me this question:

How do you empathize with someone who is very wrong?

My reader had been in a situation where her personal space was invaded – painfully.

We’ve probably all experienced this: we’re standing innocently on line at the supermarket and the person behind us shoves their shopping cart into us.

More unusually, not just once: when we turn and glare at them, they do it deliberately a second time, and then leave the cart within a hairsbreadth of our backside.

When you’re being inconvenienced by some never-to-be-seen-again stranger’s flat-out rudeness, can there possibly be any benefit to empathy?

Isn’t it weird, uncomfortable, and perhaps even doormat-like to empathize with someone who is so clearly wrong?

Finally, and more to the point of this reader’s question, how can you find empathy for someone who’s totally out of line?

Is there any benefit to empathy in this situation?

There are certainly times when empathy is a waste of your valuable energy and effort. Trying to empathize with narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths isn’t worth it. They’re far more skilled at empathy than you are, and they’ll use your efforts against you – and win. (There’s a dark side to empathy, and this is it.)

But most people you meet don’t fall into those categories.

Here’s the thing: my reader wanted the other person’s behavior to change. She wanted them to stop shoving their cart into her.

The fastest, least conflict-arousing way to do this is through empathy. So, yes, empathy is definitely worthwhile.

Isn’t it weird, uncomfortable, or even doormat-like, to show empathy in this situation?

Unusual, yes. Weird? If so, only in a good way.

Uncomfortable? Absolutely. Mostly what we want to do is shove the cart right back at them!

Doormat-like? Ah! This is one reason why it feels so uncomfortable. We’re taught to react defensively, especially when our personal space is invaded (and that can be literal space, as in my reader’s situation, or emotional space, as in when someone yells at you or calls you names). From our perspective, we are one billion percent, incontrovertibly, inarguably certain that we’re right and they’re wrong.

And from childhood we’re taught that “taking it” is for weaklings and cowards. Instead, we’re supposed to “stand up for ourselves.”

Yet I firmly believe that the people who are able to show empathy even under challenging circumstances are the strongest, most courageous people I know.

And you’re only a doormat if you have no boundaries and let people walk all over you.

Having empathy does not mean having no boundaries, and it does not mean allowing anyone to walk on you.

Quite the contrary: empathy is the fastest, least-confrontational, and therefore least-frustrating (and most likely to succeed) way to change someone’s behavior toward you.

So how do you find empathy for someone who’s wrong?

There you are, in physical and/or emotional pain from someone’s attack, completely convinced that they’re wrong and you’re right, and somehow you need to reach inside yourself and find empathy for them. Yikes!

Step One: take three deep breaths

When we’re in an emotionally-charged situation, the “fight – freeze – flight” reaction kicks in, the body tenses up, and the breath becomes rapid and shallow.

Oh, yes, and the mind starts queuing up all kinds of snappy, snarky retorts for you to fire off.

Three deep breaths calms the brain, eases the tension, and gives you time to think before you speak.

Step Two: ask yourself …

Why would a reasonable person do this?

I know. Their behavior isn’t reasonable – from your perspective. But try to answer the question anyway.

You can also try wondering, with as much curiosity as possible, what they might be feeling.

Step Three: speak from this new understanding

For instance:

“Hey, it seems like you might be feeling really stressed-out about this line, hm?”

“Wow, you’re right – this line is moving awfully slow, isn’t it?”  (BE CAREFUL with this one. Snark creeps in all too easily!)

And even, “I’m sorry – I’m not moving as fast as the line is, am I?” (assuming there’s a gap between you and the person ahead of you.)

Is it hard? You bet. When we’ve been attacked or offended, it’s incredibly hard to speak and act from this place of empathy for the person we see as the culprit.

Also, please see my BE CAREFUL comment above. These comments must come from a place of true empathy, not from a place of “I don’t freaking believe you just freaking did that!” The latter will come across in your tone, and it will only escalate the situation.

Why it works

It’s startlingly disarming. The person undoubtedly expects a belligerent, angry reaction … and instead they get a thoughtful, empathetic response.

It makes them view their behavior in a very different light.

In many cases, they apologize. And even if they don’t, they certainly lighten up and almost inevitably stop whatever they’re doing.

Which, after all, is what you want.

Why it’s worth it

It’s admittedly really hard to reach down into yourself and find – and then display – empathy for someone in this sort of situation.

If nothing else, consider it a great opportunity to practice for a time when your empathetic skills will be called upon to help you through a truly serious situation – a tough business negotiation, a fraught moment with your spouse or partner, a crisis point with your teenager, and so on.

And yes – there’s more!

You’ll feel a whole lot better. Seriously. I’ve seen it over and over again when clients have wanted to rip someone’s head off, yet they allow me to coach them through a more empathetic response. Almost invariably I’ll get a call or email afterwards saying something along the lines of, “Wow! That went so much better than I expected!”

Sometimes they even make friends with the other person – as unlikely as that sounds, and as impossible as it might have seemed to them beforehand.

gljudson Conflict, Empathy

What do these four have in common?

Alan Alda. The FBI. Seth Godin. The ACLU.

What do they have in common?

Alan Alda is most known for his acting, especially on the long-running TV show M*A*S*H; he’s also an author, speaker, and teacher.

The FBI’s Chris Voss was their lead international kidnapping negotiator; he’s now a negotiation consultant, teacher, and speaker.

Seth Godin is a marketer, speaker, teacher, and author of, among many others, The Purple Cow.

The ACLU’s Executive Director Anthony Romero is a lawyer and a TED speaker.

You wouldn’t expect to find them brought together under a common umbrella, would you?

And no, that umbrella isn’t “speaker.”

It’s empathy.

Alda is the founder of the Alda-Kavli Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook. His recent book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?, is an engrossing walk through the ways empathy helps scientists and medical professionals communicate with the rest of us – and how he and his colleagues at the Center teach empathy.

Voss, who retired in 2008 after 24 years with the FBI and formed his negotiation consultancy The Black Swan Group, talks about what he calls “tactical empathy” in his recent book Never Split the Difference: negotiating as if your life depended on it.

Godin, who writes a well-known blog as well as his many books, names empathy as an absolute requirement for effective, permission-based marketing.

Romero, recently referred to in a Fast Company article as “the ACLU’s power broker,” knows how important it is to “lead with empathy” when gauging the public’s mood and crafting a message.

It seems that those who have considered empathy to be a “soft” skill more suited to personal relationships than professional, and certainly not having a place in crisis situations and tough negotiations – are wrong.

Meanwhile, many people feel that practicing empathy is, in Alda’s words, “exhausting” and “harder to achieve than we realize.”

And many also fear that empathy will either overwhelm them with other people’s emotions or cause them to abandon their own desires and opinions in favor of the other person

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Remember, Voss refers to “tactical empathy,” a transformative tool in difficult negotiations and conflict situations.

Empathy can be learned.

And it’s a skill well worth learning.

gljudson Empathy, Negotiation

The danger of “how to” scripts

There’s growing awareness that excellent communication is a make-or-break factor for success, whether for an individual leader developing their career, or an executive team running a large organization.

But just how can a leader become more empathetic and more prepared to have these challenging, often difficult, yet essential conversations-that-matter?

One could start with books; there are plenty out there, many of them well worth reading. But they tend to teach tactics, not strategy. In other words, they generally teach step-by-step “if this happens, say that” processes. And even if that’s not the intent of the author, it’s still all too easy to take their guidance and, in our inexperience, use it as a script instead of as a practice to be adjusted according to the situation.

And that leads to inauthenticity. The person on the receiving end can always tell, especially if there’s been a recent communication workshop – “Oh, they’re just saying that because it’s what they were taught to say.” Or, as we’ve seen in recent HR-related news, some otherwise-excellent concepts can be taken to extremes, creating the exact opposite of an emotionally intelligent, empathetic conversation.

And then there’s always the challenge of what to do when your conversation partner goes off-script, tossing in a response or reaction that wasn’t described in the books – which, of course, is inevitable!

Neuroscience tells us that we all have the capacity to be empathetic.

Real-world experience shows us that people have a lot of conflicting beliefs and assumptions about what “empathy” really means, including things like “it’s weak” or “if I truly understand and empathize, I lose my point of view / lose my power / will become a doormat,” and so on.

Meanwhile, as Gallup surveys tell us over and over again, employee engagement is directly tied to management skill. Good managers have engaged employees, bad managers have disengaged employees, and most people quit their manager, not their job.

Of course, employee engagement (or lack of it) is directly tied to bottom-line results – i.e., money in the bank (or not).

This makes a compelling case for any organization that wants to create a better, more productive, more profitable work environment; a work environment in which leaders demonstrate through their own words and actions what it means to “walk the talk” of emotional intelligence and empathetic communication.

How, then, can leaders learn to communicate better from a place of authenticity rather than according to a script? How can leaders become empathetically agile and flexible, internalizing the practices of empathetic communication so they don’t have to rely on any sort of “if this, then say that” script?

All those books, all the articles on the web, while obviously intending to be helpful, can’t go into enough depth to really help someone learn. They may contain valid information, but it’s virtually impossible to learn a nuanced skill such as empathy through articles or even books. (And yes, I say this whilst writing my own book on the subject!)

Meanwhile, many of the best-known workshops on communication are built on the same platforms as the books, because the books’ authors have developed businesses around speaking and teaching according to their model.

I’m not saying those articles, books, and workshops have no value; they absolutely have value.

But real empathy and emotional intelligence come when we understand a variety of perspectives and, yes, tactics – and then integrate them with our own personality and preferences.

And then the most important factor: how we practice, on a day-to-day basis and within our own specific circumstances, the skills we’ve learned, discovering through that practice how to choose the best approach for each individual situation – and what to do when things don’t go as we anticipated.

Practice, observe, learn, tweak, practice some more. Rinse and repeat.

(And in-the-moment help, whether from a professional communication expert or from a trusted family member or friend, is a key element for effective practice.)

gljudson Better conversations, Empathy, Leadership

The high cost of poor communication

Sixty-five to 75% of change initiatives fail.

Seventy percent of the spread between bad and good organizational culture is 100% due to leadership and management.

Sixty-nine percent of the time, people quit because of their boss, not because of their job.

All too often, known risk factors aren’t attended to until they blow up into big problems.

We know all these things. But do we have any idea how expensive this is?

Lost productivity.

Employee turnover.

Poor quality.

Bad service.

Missed opportunities.

Customer dissatisfaction.

All directly impacting the bottom line.

And all because of a single foundational problem: poor communication.

That’s it. It’s that simple.

And that complex.

Statistics are drawn from Gallup’s engagement surveys

gljudson Better conversations, Leadership

Change your beliefs, change your life

If you believe…

If you believe that negotiation is hard and you have to be mean and nasty to get what you want …

I want you to believe you can negotiate successfully from a place of empathy and understanding.

If you believe that conflict is scary and to be avoided …

I want you to believe you can hold your own with quiet dignity.

If you believe that asking for what you want is useless (because you never get it) …

I want you to believe that you can develop the skills to ask for and get your desires.

If you believe that expressing the truth of who you are and what you want is too dangerous and will lead to failure (job loss, relationship loss, etc.) …

I want you to believe that vulnerability is a strength and can create amazing experiences of acceptance and success.

If you believe you’re not cut out to be the leader you yearn to be …

I want you to believe you can be exactly who you are and be recognized and honored as a true leader.

If you believe your team is struggling but you don’t know why …

I want you to believe there’s a way to discover and fix the problems.

If you believe you have to schmooze and brown-nose and play the political game to succeed in the corporate world …

I want you to believe that sincerity, honesty, and empathetic communication will help you succeed beyond your wildest dreams.

I stand for …

I stand for freeing people from the fear of heartfelt connection with others.

I stand for speaking from the heart even when it’s scary as hell.

I stand for taking the time and energy and risking the vulnerability of truly understanding each other’s experience so we can communicate empathetically and honestly about what we want and need.

I believe …

I believe that empathetic communication can change the world.

gljudson Better conversations, Empathy, Leadership

The one must-do for successful negotiation


I could end this post right there, because that’s the message.

You must practice.

Practice doesn’t mean scripts; scripts aren’t helpful when things go sideways. And they will go sideways. As military strategist Helmuth von Moltke said, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy,” and as pugilist Mike Tyson pointed out, “Everyone has a plan – until they get punched in the mouth.”

Practice allows you to create an ideal situation in your thoughts and emotions, and then – just as importantly – invites you to explore all the many things that could go wrong.

Practice means you don’t just know conceptually what result you want from the negotiation; it means you’ve talked it through with someone willing to play the opposition – and you’ve also played the opposition yourself and sought empathy for their perspective and desires.

Practice with someone skilled at negotiation gives you the added advantage of being coached to shift your words and try alternatives – and sometimes changing just one word, or rearranging the sequence of the facts you intend to present, can make all the difference in the world.

Practice helps you become less anxious and tongue-tied in the moment, because you’ve spent time – hours of time, over days and even weeks, if the issue is important enough – rehearsing (practicing) what you want to say and how you want to say it.

Practice means that if the other person becomes angry or emotional, you’ll be prepared to deal with it calmly and without succumbing to anger or emotion yourself.

Practice means that even when the plan does go sideways, and even if it goes sideways in a direction you hadn’t anticipated, you’ll be able to think on your feet because you’ve practiced exploring options and coming up with alternatives.

Practice means that if you make a mistake, you’ll have a far greater capacity to adjust and recover.

In the end, practice – serious practice, at the level I’m describing here – means you’ll almost certainly be better prepared than the other person.

And that means the end result is likely to be better than it would have been otherwise.

Practice. It’s worth the time and effort.

gljudson Negotiation

Are you part of the 69%?

Sixty-nine percent.

That’s how many managers say there’s “something about their role” that makes them uncomfortable communicating with their employees.

It’s from a research survey conducted in 2016 by Interact Authentic Communication.

I’d be very interested to know how many non-managers are uncomfortable communicating with their managers. I’m guessing it would be at least 69%, and probably more.

I find this both sad and unsurprising.

We are not taught how to communicate.

Most communication programs focus on public speaking, presentations, conflict management, and traditional negotiation.

They don’t focus on how to connect with someone and truly understand them. They don’t offer tools or even clues about what it means to develop empathy for others or how to use empathy as a crucial skill for communication and leadership.

And yet more and more leadership articles, books, and “best practices” note that a leader’s or manager’s empathy is what makes or breaks their success.

After all, we know that the primary reason people quit is because of their manager, not their responsibilities.

The idea of learning to be more empathetic can be challenging, as I outlined in my last blog post. And yet, what are we giving up, missing out on, or losing because we don’t take that step to open up and learn?

gljudson Better conversations, Empathy

Five common myths about empathy

What do you believe about empathy?

I asked that question on my social media channels, and was fascinated by the range of responses.

1. Empathy is hard (and you’re already overworked and overwhelmed).

Empathy can seem difficult because we feel vulnerable when we allow ourselves to experience it. In fact, though, empathy is a natural part of who we are as humans: our brains are hard-wired to respond to others’ experiences, both physical and emotional, through the activation of “mirror neurons.” While each of us may have a greater or lesser natural talent for empathy, any of us can develop better empathetic skills if we wish.

2. Having empathy for someone means taking on their emotional energy (and you don’t want to feel and have to cope with their anger, pain, or discomfort).

Many sensitive people feel overwhelmed when they allow themselves to empathize with another person. However, this doesn’t have to be the case, even for those who are extremely empathetic. Remembering to stay within our own experience and observe from our own perspective allows us to notice that we’re empathizing with that person over there, rather than feeling something here within us.

3. Having empathy for someone is weak (and no one wants to be perceived as weak).

Empathy is actually one of the most powerful tools we have for creating connection, building trust, and effectively navigating the many challenges in the workplace and in life. It’s a strength, not a weakness.

4. Empathy is inappropriate in the workplace (and you don’t want a reputation for being “fluffy” or overly emotional).

Emotion in the workplace certainly has to be managed, and what’s appropriate in one organization will be inappropriate in another. That said, the ability to empathize with co-workers, team members, managers, and clients or customers is a powerful way to build shared meaning, create community, and negotiate from a position of strength.

5. Having empathy for someone means automatically agreeing with them (and you don’t want to give up your ideas, lose the fight, or be perceived as not being able to stand your ground).

In fact, when you truly understand someone’s perspective – what they want, why they want it, how they feel about it – you have a wealth of information to draw upon in building the case for your own desires. Even more importantly (and fascinatingly!), when the other person feels as if you truly understand how they feel – in other words, when they “feel felt,” as author Mark Goulston, MD, puts it – they become far more open and willing to listen to what you have to say.

All that said …

Clearly, many people find empathy challenging – some because it comes too easily and is therefore overwhelming, others because it seems too hard and they’re not sure there’s any real benefit, and still others because it feels unsafe to be that open to someone else’s experience.

Yet empathy is the single most useful and powerful tool there is for building professional relationships, putting your ideas out there and negotiating for their acceptance, resolving conflict, and, very simply, being truly successful.

gljudson Empathy

Are there alternatives to win-lose negotiation?


Someone wins. Someone else loses.

One person gets what they want. The other person doesn’t.

How often do we “win,” only to discover that it’s a hollow victory? What we said we wanted feels different from the “winning” outcome.

How often do we “win,” only to discover that the relationship with the other person is irreparably damaged?

How often do we “lose,” and feel resentful and angry?

How often do we “lose,” and feel stuck in an intolerably unfair situation?

And how often do we look back and think, If only I had said … done … not done … not said …

What if it didn’t have to be this way?

What if empathy and understanding were part of the conversation, as well as what I want?

What if it were okay to really get your opponent’s point of view?

What if the other person wasn’t an opponent, but instead was a partner in the solution?

I know. That last one is hard to swallow when you’re in a heated conflict or a challenging negotiation. But … what if?

gljudson Conflict, Empathy, Negotiation