Hank Fortener, founder of Adopt Together, reframes our thinking around empathy and claims it as an essential quality for any great leader in dealing with conflict and difficult people. Drawing from his personal leadership journey, Hank provides advice for creating a “mutual conversation space” and moving toward a common goal. He even provides the science behind why communication fails when people get angry or upset.
I think empathy gets a bad rap because empathy is always thought of as like, "Oh, are you sad?" or you're worried about a person being emotional, or they come into work and have a tear in their eye and you're like, "Oh gosh, now I've got to leave this project and find out why this person is crying in my office." Its always couched into that element. What I mean by empathy is not that you feel what the person is feeling, but that you can say, "If I'm in your shoes, this is what I'm thinking." It's the ability, like any great negotiator, to be able to articulate where you know where that person is coming from. When you can know where the person is coming from, you are articulating to them their point of origin so that you can get them to travel to where you want them to be, which is in this mutual conversation space, because a conflict is always rooted in the fact that I am defending my position and you're defending yours and we are going to go at it head to head. Instead of going, "Hey, I'll actually take your position. I'll take your point of origin. I'll take what's upsetting you. I'll take what is making you angry. I'll take the issue you have. You want this project, you want this to work. Let's put that into the middle and then let's walk towards it so that we are not trying to defend anything but we're actually having a dialog, a conversation." Any great manager, any great leader knows that as soon as the temperature in the room is hot, as soon as you get a person angry, as soon as a person is frustrated, rational thought is out the window. This is a neurological thing. The more upset a person is, the less they use their frontal cortex. The rest aren't even capable of actually processing through solutions. Your best bet is to use empathy, and if you are uncomfortable with emotional element of empathy or thinking about that, focus it on the fact of informational empathy. What information is this person coming to you with? What angers them, what frustrates them, and realize that by articulating that to them you are telling them that, "I see you, I get you. We are both human beings, and now, like adults, we are going to move towards the center. Instead of being Neanderthals and trying to yell at each other and fight and get upset and get frustrated, we are going to move each other towards a common purpose."