Skills for the Future, a 3-part Series. Part 1: Empathize!
Recently I attended and was invited to present at a gathering of international consultants. They were transfer pricing specialists exploring how to adapt to an ever-increasing pace of change and to a future where their very jobs may be obsolete. Sound familiar? It should. One of the speakers (who then shared a panel with me) warned that “unless you’re a yoga teacher, a priest, or a dentist, your job is probably in danger.”
That same speaker ended his talk by lamenting the decline of trust in institutions and technology. I thus began my talk by highlighting "declining trust" as a key feature of our age and asking, “What can we do about it?”
I promised those consultants, and make the same promise to you here: “3 E’s to make it “E”-sier to build and strengthen trust. I began by sharing this story:
About 10 years ago I was in the middle of a training session with our biggest client. I was in Sydney, Australia, facilitating a communication skills session for sales execs, and at the morning coffee break, a couple participants asked if I could share some tips on “communicating bad news.”
That module wasn’t on the agenda, so I asked what these concerned professionals needed. Why would “communicating bad news” be relevant? One of them said, “Well, the investment we sold the teachers’ pension fund last year for $100/share opened today at 10.” Hmmm. Before I could formulate a response, the other one added, “cents.” Whoa! All I could suggest in reply was that rather than a “communicating bad news module” they might be better off buying some new Nikes and bullet-proof vests.
Shocked, but also thinking I was clever with my response, we continued with the workshop, including a role-play on how they might deal with their customer. Shortly thereafter, back in our Tokyo office, I received a call. Same client. By the way, can you guess who they were? Yes, long lost Lehman Brothers was on the phone, telling us that they were letting go most of the Tokyo office. Since then, their meltdown has been known as “The Lehman Shock.” One of our trainers had been seconded to Lehman and our HR contact of many years was on the phone telling me they didn’t know if our trainer could continue or if he would be let go too.
That’s when I made my biggest professional mistake to date. I said, “Well, we do have a contract.” HR shot back, “Here we are, losing people left and right. People are really freaking out, and you’re talking about a contract?!” They hung up.
What was so bad about my response? I was missing the first and most important “E” in business, one of the 3 E’s I will share in this series. I showed no empathy. I was looking out for my and my firm’s own interests first. A relationship with the HR contact, built up over 7 years and two companies working together on over 20 projects, shattered. It took 3 years to repair, and our relationship was never the same as it had been. You could argue that standing up for my company’s rights was the correct thing to do; after all, intellectually, morally, we were “right.” There really was a contract. They were “obligated” to keep our trainer there and to pay us. But as one of my own songs says, “Right can be wrong on occasion.” (Moonshots, "Q & A.")
Do you know who this guy is? He’s Chris Langan. What will surely surprise you, looking at him, is that he owns one of the highest IQs ever recorded, somewhere between 190 and 210. Literally twice as smart as the average person. His biggest claim to fame? $250,000 winner on a TV game show “1 Against 100.” But most people, when they see his picture, think he must be a body builder or a bouncer at a bar. And guess what? His main job for many years was exactly that, a barroom bouncer. He was “Too smart” for his professors. “Too smart” for his employers. Not much, if any, empathy to go along with his stratospheric IQ.
He couldn’t gain the trust of people inside the organizations where he studied or worked. Trust expresses itself with empathy. At the talk, I conducted an experiment inspired by Allan Pease’s TEDx Macquarie University talk on hand gestures. Check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4cXEZq9PbMs
Next time you shake hands with someone, notice whose hand is on top. What about the pressure? You want an equal pressure, vertically balanced hand-shake, and comfortable eye contact. Why? Because split-second, hard-wired judgements are made as to your trustworthiness. Too much pressure, you come across as “heavy-handed.” Putting your hand on top is an unconscious (I hope) way of aiming for the “upper hand.” Too little pressure, or putting your hand under your counterpart’s shows passivity. Again, check out the TEDx Ttalk; it’s fascinating and entertaining.
How much better might your next client or colleague meeting go if you’re both totally “in sync”? Would it be worth it to you to develop this skill?
By the way, you can do something else with your hands if you want to increase empathy with a larger group, whether around the meeting table, on a video conference, or in front of a group as I was with those consultants. It turns out that we all have one of three primary ways of using our hands when we speak: open-palm, closed-palm, and pointing. (This is also part of that TEDx Talk.) If you want to increase empathy, use a lot of open-palm gestures; if you want to be commanding (which on some occasions is useful), use palms down, and point only if you want to get people angry at you. Find out if you’re a “pointer” and if you are, put that gun away!
Several people over the years have asked me if I believe it’s possible to learn, teach, or increase empathy. What do you think? I am 100% convinced it is possible, and more than that, it’s necessary.
Next post, I’ll introduce another way to increase empathy and introduce the other 2 E’s. Meanwhile, please leave any comments or questions here or send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.