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From time to time, but hopefully not too often, everybody has to handle a situation that is generally called “difficult”. What exactly is a difficult situation, say, a difficult meeting with an important customer?

Why “difficult”?

Let’s start by looking at what it is not:

  • We don’t usually call a meeting difficult because the content is intellectually very challenging. The IT industry is blessed with many bright people, and I assume that you, dear reader, are one of them. (In fact, many years ago I read – probably in Daniel Goleman’s famous book about Emotional Intelligence – about a fascinating study that had determined that a high IQ was not a predictive factor for a successful career in IT. Instead, a high IQ is the necessary entrance ticket into the industry. Once you’re in, your career success is determined primarily by the strength of your “emotional intelligence”, a.k.a. EQ.) So we don’t usually have any trouble grasping the content of any discussion or negotiation intellectually, and “difficult” meetings are no exception here.
  • Also, we rarely call a meeting difficult because the interests of the parties that meet are so strongly in opposition, and so difficult to bring to congruence. Once again, finding and executing a reasonable scenario in which everybody wins or that is at the very least a viable option for all is not difficult for smart people, even if complex planning with limited resources and many dependencies is involved. If there are no atmospheric disturbances and a foundation of trust between the parties that are involved, it is a piece of cake.

Which leads me to my point: Meetings are difficult when they are emotionally difficult, because porcelain has been shattered, because there are atmospheric disturbances, because the foundation of trust between the parties has been lost or damaged. We are not worried before meeting with a customer who has high demands – but we may be quite worried before meeting one who is mad as hell. Or, if you’re in a leadership role, a really difficult meeting might be one about deeply emotional personal conflicts in your team, in which emotions lie bare, hurtful past events are discussed, and you’re always just one inconsiderate word away from someone breaking into tears.

These situations are difficult because they don’t give us the usual leeway, in which a slightly off phrase may be shrugged off or laughed away. Instead, every word that is not perfectly right is likely to shatter more porcelain and make the situation much worse. You may go into a meeting with a customer who is seriously mad, and go out of a meeting with a former customer who is actively seeking to destroy you. On the other hand, if you handle things very well, you might not only resolve a very unpleasant situation, but also end up turning a potential opponent into a loyal and powerful supporter, and bring an important relationship to a new level. The stakes are high: There is a lot to lose, and plenty to win.

How to master difficult situations

In my experience, the single most important factor for resolving an emotionally charged conflict, in a business setting or elsewhere, is the ability to figure out how exactly everybody involved feels about all the aspects of the situation. You’ve got to find out what the conflict parties’ really sensitive buttons are, who pushed those buttons, when, why, and how. Did anyone lose face? Were they humiliated? Did they feel their trust betrayed? Are they feeling let down, insecure, afraid of the unknown? Does product X by vendor Y pose a threat to them because they see their own position waning into insignificance, or does the product, or the vendor’s behavior, violate someone’s personal core values? Is someone’s playtoy being taken away, or is someone crying because they are shown the cold shoulder?

Seeing these things clearly is always non-trivial, and in a business setting it’s going to be made more difficult because nobody speaks “tacheles”, and discusses these underlying things openly. Instead, the conversation takes place on a plane several levels of abstraction removed from where the actual issues lie. People will voice their concerns about percentages, discuss the development of margins in certain regions and market segments, or debate the virtues of competing IT standards, when in fact they feel like a crying three-year old who just had their toy shovel taken away by an older bully.

Resolving the conflict is frequently not doable by solving, on a rational level, all the problems that have been brought to the table. This will only result in stubbornness, new problems being brought up, and a peace that is brittle at best. You have to understand the underlying conflict at the emotional level where it actually occurs, and resolve it there. Again, you face the problem that you cannot discuss these things openly, because people would lose face by talking about their emotions. So you have to talk about interests, percentages, service level agreements, projects plans, and the virtues of IT standards in order to make one person stop crying internally, and to make the other person give the shovel back  internally, and so on.

The visual analogy that comes to my mind is minimal-invasive surgery with probes, where the surgeons operative through several layers of skin, fat, and muscle tissue without violating them – a highly indirect way of operating that requires an especially skilled practitioner but spares everybody a bloody mess and huge scars.

The business value of empathy

Empathy is, among many other things, that special skill:

  • to understand and address a conflict or problem at the level that is never openly discussed but is really its core – especially in difficult situations where the stakes are high
  • to operate successfully at that level and resolve the underlying problem without creating a bloody mess and loss of skin or face
  • to use a crisis as an opportunity to take a relationship to a new level of trust and cooperation – with lots of leeway to be exploited in search of the win-win scenario.

Post scriptum: Empathy is many other things

Empathy has many other aspects that are directly valuable for success – I might even say: necessary for survival – in business. These might be covered in other blogs, and I’m just going to scratch the surface here:

  • To be a real leader, you need to have a deep understanding of what makes the people you lead tick. Firstly, you might need that understanding in order to manipulate them. (Let’s be frank!) But more importantly, they need to feel that you understand them in order to follow you loyally through thick and thin. A leader without empathy is just a tyrant or a bureaucrat.
  • As software developers, we strive to build solutions that are actually valuable to customers, users, and stakeholders. Good design requires a deep understanding of these people’s perspectives, including the pain points, limitations they face and their hopes and desires. Steve Jobs changed the world with brilliant design: He was able to turn mobile technology into a mass phenomenon that changes society and culture profoundly primarily because he understood people’s dreams and desires before they were even aware of them. That’s empathy.

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10 Comments

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  1. Moya Watson

    This is very good – even with the gross surgery picture!

    This feels like required learning in business school. Having not been to business school I don’t know if it is – but it is essential information at the heart of making business work. I especially like the sentiment that empathy can turn a bad situation into a good one, with sometimes better results than if there had been.no bad situation to begin with. Zappos and other online empires have mastered this well to advantage.  Thanks.

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    1. Thorsten Franz Post author

      Thank you, Moya. I’m really glad you like it, and sorry about any feeling of discomfort caused by the surgery picture. (A little voice in my head squawks: “hernia!”)

      I don’t know what they teach in business school either, but I have an idea of what they learn. Enough said, I don’t want to alienate any readers with my loose comments. 😉

      Cheers,

      Thorsten

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  2. Marilyn Pratt

    In her recent Blog It Forward – Audrey Stevenson#bif post my colleague Audrey Stevenson wrote:

    anyone from other diverse groups trying to make their way in the mainstream business world — forget to empathize with themselves. No, I’m not saying feel sorry for themselves. Empathizing is definitely NOT the same as feeling sorry for someone.

    I thought Audrey was on to something when she spoke of women and others from other “diverse groups” needing to empathize with themselves first and foremost.  The concept of empathizing with self wasn’t clear until I read The Empathy Factor by Marie R. Miyashiro.

    Miyashiro speaks of the ability to empathize in the workplace as critical to business advantage.  She writes:

    “The process of empathic connection requires a literacy and comfort with two human qualities that have been systematically devaluated and misinterpreted in the world around us.  Our organizations are born out of this same consciousness and simply replicate this world condition in our workplaces.

    These two misunderstood qualities are

    1)     Our ability to be fluently aware of our feelings without judgment of them

    2)     Our ability to then connect these feelings to related human needs that are being met or unmet”

    In the forward to the book Jerry Colona, said that realizing empathy is a call

    “for ending this subtle, persistent and awful violence to the Self done every day in the name of profits and productivity ….building a more compassionate, empathic workplace is precisely the path to greater productivity and consequently profits.”

    Much of the book derives its practice from helping us see that the “shattered porcelain bits” you allude to Thorsten, are usually our own feelings and we often impose our judgements on others through the prism of our own biases, feelings, experiences.

    Breaking the cycle of doing that “judging” means  “engaging with one another in our full humanness”.  That might sound “touchy-feely” to some and yet it isn’t hard to understand that organizations (businesses for example), “differ from people in that they don’t have an inherent right to exist; they exist only to service human needs” .

    The book emphasizes that leaders without empathy are less innovative, productive, and yes, may be seen (as you have said) as tyrants. Yet the tyranny and the lack of empathy sometimes is a subtle and seemingly unnoticed phenomena.

     

    Understanding our own needs (practicing empathy with self) enables us to understand where another person is coming from.  While we may not be able to “feel” their feelings we can begin to understand them.  And apropos tyranny – empathy is according to Miyashiro “power with people, not over people, profit with people, and not profit from people.”  It’s not about getting someone to do something you want but rather really creating a depth of connection that enables you to truly collaborate with others.

    It’s clear that high-performing companies have leaders who are both self-aware (practice empathy with self) and have the ability to connect with others.  Self connection, self awareness becomes the foundation for understanding the needs of others. 

    So what are we doing to articulate the needs of our customers that we are dedicated and commited to meeting?

    Stay tuned….

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    1. Thorsten Franz Post author

      Marilyn,

      Thank you for your feedback and for food for thought. 🙂 Right now, I can say I fully agree about self-empathy, or the importance of being aware of one’s own internal (most specifically: emotional) state – one the one hand, for purposes of self-regulation (“I’m cold/tired/fed up, need to take action”), and on the other hand, as a basis for relating to others.

      Cheers,

      Thorsten

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    2. Moya Watson

      >> (businesses for example), “differ from people in that they don’t have an inherent right to exist; they exist only to service human needs”

      I think a more disturbing trend here in the States is exactly to the opposite, finding corporations more like people in terms of rights to exist.  Carried out to its fullest, this could repeal empathy from the picture entirely. A scary prospect.

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  3. Mark Yolton

    Great post. There’s a maturity of thought and reason articulated here that isn’t always evident broadly in everyday life.

    In our rush to get more done in less time, I’m afraid we (I) cut corners on the human interactions. (Un)fortunately I have a long commute, so I often find that time useful and productive for self-reflection. When I do playback my interactions there are often things i could/should have done better, learn from, and apply as i  anticipate future difficult situations or simply find myself in the middle of discomfort.

    We never get perfect at this all the time, but constant conscious striving for growth serves us well individually, and advances whole societies and communities.

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    1. Thorsten Franz Post author

      Thanks, Mark, for your nice and thoughtful comment.

      It’s good food for thought for me: I, too, have that habit of playing back my interactions with others and running simulations of future encounters – and I dare say I spend more time on those simulations than on actual physical interactions with others.

      At first I wondered if that means I should be more focused on the here and now. Then I came to the conclusion that it’s okay: Musicians spend more time practising than performing on stage, and atheletes spend a lot of time training for a competition that takes only a small amount of time, so why should the mechanics for getting it right be different for human interactions?  🙂

      Best,

      Thorsten

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  4. Gail Moody-Byrd

    Thorsten,

    Thoughtful as always. I want to raise two points:

    1. What is learned in business school. B-schools can give its graduates a place to discuss empathy, influence, engagement on a deeper level – IF the student is inclined to hear the message. There are moral dilemmas that are discussed, choices of great import that are the crux of the cases we studied. I particularly want to tell you about a class I took called “Power and Influence”. The class was taught with case studies and movies. The take – away from the class was that there are many ways to exert influence – many of which are more subtle, nuanced, and empathic – with quiet strength. We watched “Twelve Angry Men” with Henry Fonda, Lee J Cobb and others (was nominated for best picture) – an amazing story about a jury for a homicide case and the shift in power during the jury’s deliberation. Henry Fonda’s connection with each of the jurors based on his empathic understanding of each (unvoiced, for the most part) changed the verdict. So business schools can and do teach how to handle difficulty with empathy.

    2. Reading list for leaders that stresses more nuanced ways to lead:Harvard Business Review posted a list  –  “If You Want to Lead, Read These Ten Books”. I was pleasantly surprised to see books as non-business-like as Les Miserables, WE (about masculine/feminine traits we all need to have), Daring Greatly (about shame) and Sabbath (great leaders must have a moral compass). This list is not the typical business school reading list – but it is endorsed and published because the school’s leaders know grads need emotional intelligence to lead effectively. I’m going to work MY WAY thru this list during the next few months.

    Let’s keep talking about this  – more in Madrid!

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    1. Moya Watson

      Thanks Gail Moody-Byrd for the business school insight.  This seems to be key:

      >> B-schools can give its graduates a place to discuss empathy, influence, engagement on a deeper level – IF the student is inclined to hear the message.

      There is no compulsory study in the area of empathy – and it’s my concern that business – in particular when we talk about ‘big business’ – is in fact disincentivized to be empathic.  “We have ultimate responsibility to our shareholders” is often stated when what is meant is “Sorry about hurting real people, but we gotta make money.”  Maybe it’s shareholders we need to engage in empathy.

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