Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

Are you an 18 second manager?

August 4th, 2011 No comments

Are you an 18 second manager?

This is a nice provocative video from Tom Peters on listening:

Tom refers to research into the length of time taken by doctors before they interrupt a patient describing their symptoms. He recommends that managers and leaders (and in fact everyone in every organisation) develop their ability to listen to their customers, employees and colleagues. It is something that be learned.

Are you an 18-second manager, or an 18-second leader?

Up on the ridge

January 23rd, 2011 No comments

valleys and ridges

valleys and ridges

Up on the ridge

I came across a great article by Daniel Yankelovich the other day on ‘The magic of dialogue’ (hat tip to Lynn Murphy for the original link).

In the article Daniel refers to Martin Buber’s idea that life is a form of meeting, and that dialogue is the ‘ridge’ on which we meet. I like that image, because a ridge is narrow, and we need to take care not to fall off. It takes some effort to stay up there – it is easier to slip back down into our own territory, than it is to stay at the point where we are in a real connection with someone else.

Dialogue, debate and conversation

Daniel explains why he prefers to refer to ‘dialogue’ rather than debate; he feels that dialogue is about seeking mutual understanding, whereas debate is about winning an argument, or vanquishing an opponent. I share his interest in mutual understanding rather than winning, but I prefer to refer to ‘conversation’ rather than dialogue: conversation for me is a less formal, more everyday term than dialogue.

Tips for improving conversations

Daniel gives some great advice in his article for improving the quality of the conversations or dialogue that he is promoting. His tips include:

  • bringing assumptions out into the open (and sharing your own assumptions before pointing out the assumptions of other people);
  • offering a gesture of empathy (what Daniel calls an ‘open sesame’ for dialogue). Empathy usually involved “acknowledging the validity of the other person’s point of view”); and
  • “expressing the emotions that accompany strongly held values”. Conversation about any topic that really matters to people is bound to touch on deeply held beliefs and very personal convictions. “If the status quo is to be subject to question, strong feelings are bound to surface.”

The whole article is well worth a read, and I’m inspired to take a look at his book of the same name (Amazon affiliate link).

* The photograph at the top is from, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Seeing the world in a more useful way

December 20th, 2009 No comments

In my last post I wrote about how we don’t see the world they way it is, we see the world the way we are (since writing that, I’ve learned that this is a saying that comes from the Judaic Talmud). In the entertaining and thought-provoking video below, Beau Lotto demonstrates this same point using some eye-popping optical illusions.

Seeing the world in a more useul way

Lotto shows that what we see has no inherent meaning of its own – the same visual stimulus on our retina could come from an infinite number of real-world situations. What our brains do is create meaning and significance by making some assumptions about what it is we are seeing – assumptions based on what has been useful to us to assume in the past.

So evolution explains how we see the world now – those of our ancestors that survived to pass on their genes probably made assumptions about the world that were more useful than the assumptions made by their brothers and sisters who didn’t survive. They spotted predators hiding in the bushes, for example, and reacted more quickly.

The conclusion that Lotto draws in the video clip is that our brains didn’t evolve to see the world the way it is – we can’t do that. Our brains evolved to see the world in the way it was useful to see the world in the past.

Ted Talk: Beau Lotto: optical illusions show how we see

But Lotto also makes a wider point. He argues that what is true of visual information is true of all information in general. There is no inherent meaing in information, it’s what we do with that information that matters – we make sense of it.

Making more useful assumptions

We can see this process at work in the way that we make judgements about other people, including complete strangers. We size people up by the way that they dress, the colour of their skin, how they walk and talk, and so on. We do this in ways that we are not even aware of. So within 20 seconds of meeting someone for the first time, we have decided whether we like them or not.

When we do this we are making assumptions about people based on limited information – assumptions which may have been helpful in the past. But this kind of assumption is also often wrong.

Rather than try to fight our natural tendency to make assumptions – which is nearly impossible to do – what we can do is be aware of the assumptions we are making. Notice how we are responding to other people, and ask ourselves on what information our assumptions are based. That then gives us an opportunity to seek out new information that might change our point of view – we can be more open-minded, and more generous towards the other person than we might otherwise have been.

This is very relevant when we are working with people in conflict. They will be telling themselves stories that make sense of their situations, based on assumptions that may well have helped them in the past. But there may be a more useful set of assumptions they could make instead – more useful in terms of meeting their needs. And we can help them to test out and choose to alter their assumptions.

This applies to mediators too. We need to be aware of the judgements we are making about the parties in the conflict, catch ourselves making those assumptions, and give ourselves the opportunity to change our minds as we find out more, and be open to that possibility.

What can you learn from a glass of water?

December 6th, 2009 No comments

Glass of water

I attended a corporate awayday on Thursday, as a participant rather than a facilitator (for a change). It was a pretty good day, made better by the fact that the agenda was not too packed (only 4 main sessions), and time was allowed for networking and chatting. Not enough time for my taste, but then my preference now is for the Open Space model, which essentially turns an awayday into one long coffee break.

Guy Browning of Smokehouse led an entertaining session on creativity. He told some good stories, and encouraged us to try out some good techniques, one of which struck a particular chord with me.

What can you learn from a glass of water?

Standing at the front of the room in front of the 60 or so participants, Guy held up a clear glass of water. He asked us each to take the viewpoint of the glass of water, and write down what the glass of water was seeing, feeling and experiencing at that moment.

My thoughts were:

  • seeing: a room of people, a hand very close, windows and greyness outside
  • feeling: anticipation, fear, curiosity
  • experiencing: feeling new-born, just been taken to a new vantage point

Guy made the point that the exercise allowed us to project ourselves onto something as plain and unfeeling as a glass of water. And what we had each come up with told us something about ourselves – what we thought the glass of water was seeing, feeling and experiencing was connected with how we ourselves were at that moment. “You don’t see the world as it is, you see it as you are”. And I can see some links between my thoughts about the glass of water, and how I was feeling at that time.

This is interesting to me for two reasons. The first is because these kinds of projective techniques can be useful to facilitators, coaches or mediators. Rather than asking people directly to describe how they are feeling or what they are experiencing (when they may censor themselves, or say what they think you want to hear), you can use a technique like this to help people find other ways to reveal how they are – drawing, choosing a postcard from set of 50 postcards, taking an imaginary walk and describing what they can see, and so on.

The other reason this is of interest to me is that it is connected with bringing about change. We may be acutely aware of what we are unhappy with in the external world – what we would like to change. But we are often unaware of how our own actions are bringing about the outcomes we so dislike. For example, I blogged recently about how our desire for security and control may actually make us less secure.

If you’re not part of the problem…

Adam Kahane touches on this in his book on mediation Solving Tough Problems. He takes issue with the slogan “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem”. Kahane says that this slogan

actually misses the most important point about effecting change. The slogan should be…”If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution”. If we cannot see how what we are doing or not doing is contributing to things being the way that they are, then logically we have no basis at all, zero leverage, for changing the way things are – except from the oustside, by persuasion or force.

This is a really important point for anyone who wants to bring about change. It would be easy to see ‘being part of the problem’ as itself a problem for a change-maker, but Kahane encourages us to see it as an opportunity. Being inside a problem makes it easier, not harder, for us to have empathy with the other ‘problem people’ – they are more similar to us than we may care to admit. And it gives us an insight into how they (we) are creating the problem, how difficult it is to make personal change, and what we can do to make it easier for others to change – often by taking the first steps ourselves.


November 13th, 2009 2 comments



I wrote a while ago about the differences between exercising my professional skills as a listener, and choosing instead to actually engage in a conversation and give something of myself. One of the differences is needing to care, in order to actively take part in a conversation.

For example, mediation works well when there is a level of empathy between the mediator and the parties in the conflict. As a mediator, I can only properly empathise with the parties when I let myself care about them – when I have genuine concerns for the pain or difficulty they are both experiencing. I can’t be cool and detached when I am caring, I have to be on their side in some way – on the side of both of the parties, that is (what some mediators refer to as multi partiality).

In their book Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management, the authors link this idea of caring to the idea of being authentic.

It is possible to read plenty of books about listening ‘techniques’ and still miss the point. One of the challenges for us is to develop our authenticity as a listener. This means we listen, not because we have to but because we are genuinely curious and care about the speaker and what they are seeking to communicate. (p. 89)

This is harder to do than it is to say. While I am listening to you, your words are prompting thoughts and responses in my mind. More often than not I am waiting for you to finish only so that I can tell a funny story of my own that you have reminded me of. Or I have such a strong reaction to the first thing you said that I don’t listen to your careful exceptions and explanations – I just want to tell you why you’re wrong.

When I’m doing this I’m not really in a conversation with you – I’m just waiting for you to get off-stage so that I can have the star turn. The hard work is in really listening to what you are saying – all of it – and actually responding to what you said.

This perfection is difficult to achieve – sometimes my internal voice is just too insistent, and I need to speak. And it’s not much of a conversation if I never give my own opinion or viewpoint. But to listen to somebody – to really listen to them – is to treat them as a person who is worth listening to.

If you have experienced another person paying you full attention because they care for you, then it’s a memorable moment. (p. 89)

(Hat tip to Steve Hindmarsh for first introducing me to Ivan Böszörményi-Nagy’s idea of multi partiality or multi-directed partiality.)

* The photograph at the top is from, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.