What do we do next?

Two men reaching connection across a chasmThis has been an unbelievably weird, wild, difficult year.

An unprecedented number of catastrophic, profoundly painful events have caused immense loss and suffering for a tremendous number of people across the United States and around the world.

Parallel to these in-the-moment events are revelations of long-ongoing acts of harassment and violence against various groups of people deemed “not like us” and/or “okay to harass” by the perpetrators.

What do we do next?

We are deeply divided over this question. There are so many conflicting answers that finding a way forward seems almost impossibly confusing … and maybe just plain impossible.

But I believe that there is an answer: a single, primary, strategic answer that must come first, before any tactical efforts.

We have to have better conversations.

We have to learn how to talk to and listen to each other.

Even when – especially when – we’re talking across deep divisions and disagreement.

I learned a new concept today: conflict transformation.

Conflict transformation is about creating deeper understanding. It requires perspective-taking. As a result it enables greater connection, whether or not there is agreement.

~ Dr. Michelle Buck, quoted in Brené Brown’s latest book Braving the Wilderness.

What if, through better conversations, we could transform conflict into … something else?

It can be done. It is being done. Here’s one example of how better conversations changed a community in Montana.

gljudson Better conversations, Conflict

It’s not my fault!

Whose fault is it?Most people don’t want to believe that they are the difficult person who’s causing a problem, or that they have any part in a miscommunication, disagreement, or conflict.

That’s not just my opinion; it’s borne out by a recent survey conducted by Fierce, Inc. (founded by Fierce Conversations author Susan Scott) and Quantum Workplace.

According to the report, only half of the 1,344 employees who responded to the survey believe they engage in “great or excellent” communication with managers and colleagues.

However, half also felt that “they’re never, almost never, or rarely” part of communication breakdowns – but over 80% of them felt that “workplace miscommunication occurs very frequently, frequently, or occasionally.”


We do love to see ourselves in the best possible light, don’t we?

The reality is that for every person we think is difficult, there are probably at least as many people who think we’re the difficult one.

This obviously creates a disconnect, and leads to finger-pointing in every direction except back at ourselves. After all, they’re the problem, not you.

What if we each – every one of us – took 100% of the responsibility for communicating cleanly, clearly, and honestly?

What if we didn’t divide up responsibility, even 50/50, but instead every single person involved took 100%?

This doesn’t mean you’re the only one who has to change, do things differently, or “fix” the situation. After all, everyone has 100% of the responsibility.

It doesn’t mean you have to forgive anyone for bad behavior, since they have 100% of the responsibility for their own actions and words – and for making amends when necessary.

It does mean, however, that you are now responsible for taking action. That could mean speaking out, saying the uncomfortable truth, and pointing out the challenge.

It could also mean making amends for your mistakes.

Because if over 80% of the surveyed employees felt they were only half of the problem, that means someone’s got their head in the sand.

Is it you?

(Curious about the report? At the time of this writing, it’s available on the Fierce, Inc. website. Which is to say, it may not be there by the time you read this – and if so, by all means come to my Contact page and let me know.)

gljudson Better conversations

What to do when someone keeps asking the same question

Stressing out in front of a computerThere’s a simple and obvious answer to their problem.

You’ve explained it.

Multiple times.

In different ways.

But they keep repeating the question.

Your frustration level is through the roof.

Your sanity – never mind your temper – is hanging by a very slender thread – a thread that’s just about to snap.

A consultant friend was struggling with this. A new client simply wouldn’t stop describing the problem he was having, no matter how many times my friend explained the solution. “I don’t get it,” my friend said. “I’ve broken the answer down into the simplest possible terms. This is a smart guy; he should have understood me from the start. But after 20 minutes of going around and around with him, I finally had to end the phone call with a feeble excuse about a meeting.”

And then she asked,

“Why wouldn’t he listen to me?”

Because the question he was asking wasn’t the question he really wanted her to answer.

That might sound weird, but it’s true.

My friend is a technology consultant. Her client is, as she said, a smart guy. He’s also a successful businessperson who freely admits that he’s got no time for technological details.

But he knows that technology is crucial to his business.

What he was really asking was, “Can I trust you to keep my business running?”

When I explained this to my friend, her eyes got big, and she said, “Ohhhh… of course.”

Whenever someone seems unable to hear a simple, obvious answer, there’s a deeper, emotionally-vulnerable question underneath.

If you pause and listen with curiosity, you can usually hear what that question is.

And then you can respond to what’s actually being asked instead of what’s apparently being asked.

My consultant friend scheduled a meeting with her client during which she solved the problem he’d been asking about. But that’s not the real reason she met with him. She wanted to reassure him – subtly and tactfully – that she had the experience, expertise, and commitment to make sure the technology supporting his business would run smoothly.

He was happy.

And so was she.

gljudson Difficult people

When you have every right …

Anger-meterSomeone did something wrong. Something happened, outside of your control but within theirs, that impacted you in a hurtful, time-consuming, or perhaps even expensive way.

You have every right to be angry. Pissed off. Annoyed. Frustrated.

Forget this empathy horsepucky – you’re mad, and you’re going to tell them all about it.

Hold on a minute!

There’s a big misconception – and I do mean BIG – that understanding the other person’s experience (a.k.a. empathy) is for the benefit of that other person.

Wrong. So very wrong.

When you understand why and how individuals react, speak, and generally behave the way they do, you have vastly greater capacity to influence them and shape outcomes into what you want. Realizing this, you’ll see that in fact empathy for the other person provides you with the information you need to manage the situation as effectively as possible.

In this example – you’ve been done wrong – the immediate impulse is to tell the wrong-doer just how wrong they are.

Pause for a moment and consider: when was the last time someone unloaded on you, perhaps out of the blue, or perhaps when you already knew you’d screwed up?

Did their angry description of how badly you’d behaved inspire you to make amends?

I doubt it. If you’re like most people (meaning, you’re human and not a saint!), you probably got angry in turn, and the situation slid on downhill. When under attack – especially sudden attack – even the guiltiest conscience quickly turns into defensive reactivity.

So stop for a moment.

How can you state your case without arousing their “fight-freeze-flight” response?  Can you find words that will make it clear you’re not happy with what happened, while also engaging them in a solution to the problem?

Here’s a hint: avoid “why” questions such as, “Why did you do that?” Even when asked in what might feel like a gentle tone of voice, “why” questions almost always arouse defensiveness – and again, that’s just not helpful.

It may seem like I’m advocating coddling their feelings when you’re the one who’s been mistreated. That’s not at all the case. I’m a strong proponent of firm boundaries and never allowing ourselves to be abused in any way.

But angry retaliation is – to be blunt – just as abusive, and, more to the point, is more likely to escalate the problem than solve it; it’s seldom (if ever) an effective way to change the situation for the better.

Anger in and of itself is not “wrong” (feelings are never “wrong,” they just are). It’s what we do with our anger that tips the scales. So anger can inspire us to understand the other person in order to take a stand for ourselves – or it can lead us to whack someone verbally, emotionally, or even physically.

It’s up to us which way it goes.

gljudson Better conversations, Conflict

Got difficult people?

Difficult PeopleThe question I’m asked most often is, “How do I deal with difficult people?!”

Of course, difficult people come in many shapes and sizes.

There’s the gossipy co-worker and the nitpicky boss, the micro-managing manager and the insensitive colleague, the drama queen and the “my way or the highway” king, and so on (and on…) – and each type is most effectively handled in different ways.

Take heart, though, because this doesn’t mean I can’t answer the question. Nor does it mean you have to learn a bazillion different techniques. While it’s true that tuning your approach to the individual person and specific situation will get you the best results, there are still a few simple concepts you can apply to get a sense of relief and freedom from the difficult person.

Begin by recognizing that people don’t generally think of themselves as difficult.

Then notice that so-called “difficult” behavior almost always arises out of fear and anxiety.

In the heat of the moment – or at what my husband calls “game speed” – it’s challenging to stop and ask yourself, “What is this person afraid of or anxious about?”

It’s even more challenging to wonder, “Why would a reasonable person behave this way?” (Especially when you’re gritting your teeth over their actions and thinking that they’re anything but reasonable.)

However, asking yourself these questions can lead to insights that can, in turn, lead you to a different approach. Instead of simply snarling at the difficult person or trying to ignore them (neither of which is usually very effective – have you noticed?), you now have information you can use to create a more positive outcome.

And while it may feel counter-intuitive to respond with empathy when you, after all, are the one who’s being treated badly, you’ll be surprised by how effective this simple technique can be.

Does it work in all cases? Of course not – and this is only a starting point. But here’s one other interesting benefit to this practice: in asking those two questions, you’ll start to gradually become aware that their behavior isn’t about you – it’s all about them.  It truly isn’t personal – which we all know intellectually, but seldom manage to remember in the heat of the moment.

And by the way, it’s also helpful to remember that there are times when you are the difficult person in someone else’s eyes!

(Note also that the difficult people I’m discussing here are not actively malicious. Bullying, sexual harassment, and intimidation are an entirely different thing from garden-variety difficult, and I’ll talk about dealing with them in a future post.)

gljudson Better conversations, Difficult people

The three levels of empathy

The three levels of empathyAny chocolate lover will tell you there’s no such thing as just chocolate – even dark chocolate comes in multiple levels of intensity, never mind milk or white chocolate!

Similarly, empathy isn’t just empathy; there are different levels and correspondingly different impacts.

I’ve written elsewhere about my dislike of the phrase “I hear you.”  To summarize what I say there, I hear a lot of things – my keyboard keys clicking, the wind in the trees outside, the cat purring – but that doesn’t mean I’m actually listening to any of it.

“I hear you” is level-one empathy. It’s meant well, of course: it’s meant to indicate that I’m listening to what you say. However, it can also be defensive, because it often comes with an unspoken, “but I sure don’t agree with you!”

Level-two empathy is, “I understand you.” This says I’ve paid enough attention to understand the intellectual content of what you’re saying.

This is more empathetic, and therefore more connecting, than level one, but it still doesn’t create the depth of connection needed for real communication to happen. As long as we’re dealing in the intellectual realm, we haven’t reached true empathy; we’re still operating at a surface level. As such, we won’t be effective in resolving disagreement or conflict, or in negotiating in a way that honors everyone involved.

Level-three empathy requires me to demonstrate that I understand how you feel as well as what you say. It’s not enough for me to say, “I get it”; I have to say something that proves that I get it. This requires me to pay deep attention to more than just what you say; I have to be aware of how you say it and what emotions you’re revealing. I have to watch your expressions (if we’re face-to-face) and listen to your tone of voice, and I have to rely upon my knowledge of who you are (however limited or extensive that may be) in order to interpret what I’m seeing and hearing.

Level-three empathy requires sensitivity and vulnerability. I have to be careful to phrase my interpretation in a way that validates your experience rather than dictating what it should be. And I have to be willing to be wrong.

The language of level-three empathy includes phrases like, “It seems to me you might be feeling …” and “I wonder if what you’re saying is … ” and “If I were in your place, I might be feeling … is that where you’re at?”

Level-three empathy takes practice. It requires sincerity (which levels one and two really don’t – one of the reasons why they tend not to lead to good outcomes!). It requires willingness to be open to differing opinions, and to accept that people don’t always believe, act, or feel the way we think they “should.”

And as I’ve said about empathy in general, it is so worth developing this skill!

gljudson Empathy

What IS empathy, anyway?

Sharing experienceOf all the emotional skills, empathy is possibly the hardest to define – and perhaps also the hardest to practice.

Some people equate empathy with being overwhelmed by other people’s emotions.

But the most sincerely empathetic people I know are also the most self-contained and clear on who they are, what they want, and where they hold their boundaries. Which makes me think that empathy can only really be achieved when we acknowledge that the other person’s experience is not ours, even as we enter into a deep awareness of how they might be feeling.

Some people believe that if they come to a truly empathetic understanding of someone’s experience, they’ll end up agreeing with that person.

Because they like their own point of view and don’t want to agree with the other person, they choose not to reach for that level of understanding.

But understanding does not equal agreement. Instead, understanding – especially at the empathetic level – gives us the knowledge we need to settle disagreements, resolve conflict, negotiate productively, and strengthen relationships.

Some people can’t bring themselves to empathize with someone who seems so wrong.

But, as I wrote about here and also here, it is only when we can empathize that we have any hope of real communication. And as I commented to someone lamenting that, “I can’t reason with him!”, reason and data simply don’t work in cases of emotionally-charged disagreement and conflict – but empathy often does, even in situations that appear hopelessly entrenched.

So what is empathy?

Empathy is the honest and sincere effort to help another person feel felt.

Not just heard. I hear a lot of things, even when I’m not paying attention.

Not just understood. The words, phrases, and sentences may make sense, but I’m still not necessarily getting it.

Felt. Felt at, yes, the level where you can understand why someone might be saying and doing the things they’re saying and doing – even if you disagree, and no matter how vehemently you may disagree.

You don’t have to agree to empathize – to help them feel felt, feel gotten at that deep gut level and heart level.

Because here’s the thing: when someone feels felt, they become more open and less resistant.

When someone believes – really, truly believes – that you understand the emotions behind their words and deeds, they begin to be ready and able to hear you in turn.

And that makes all the difference in the world.

(Credit to Dr. Mark Goulston and his book Talking to Crazy for the wonderfully descriptive term “feel felt.”)

gljudson Empathy

Empathy – now more than ever

Candle-light(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 something like 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:

“Isn’t this line awful?!”

Or even, “Oh, 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.

And please be careful! 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. If you can’t keep from being snarky, you’re better off saying nothing at all.

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.

Plus, 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 get a call or email afterwards saying something along the lines of, “Wow! That went so much better than I expected!” It’s a real confidence booster.

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