Hosts Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham discuss empathy, a soft skill that everyone can benefit from, but it’s a soft skill that is poorly understood and often overlooked.
Graham ‘0:24’: Welcome to Episode 9 of Serious Soft Skills. I’m Bob Graham and with me as always, at least so far, is Dr. Tobin Porterfield. We each teach college; we collaborate on researching soft skills, and we both have used and seen others employ soft skills over the course of our long and illustrious careers, not that long and not that illustrious. We think our experience and expertise give us a unique lens for looking at soft skills. We’re going to show you that when we talk in the next few moments about empathy.
What Is Empathy?
Graham ‘0:52’: But before we talk about empathy, we need to define it. Empathy is defined as the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions and experiences of others. Now, let’s compare it with sympathy, because we often confuse those two. Sympathy is being able to understand and support others with compassion and sensitivity. So sympathy is understanding, whereas empathy is being able to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions and experiences of others. Just in those two definitions we see that empathy is deeper than sympathy. Sympathy is a lower threshold of activity that’s going on. Can you go a bit deeper for us, Toby?
Dr. Tobin Porterfield ‘1:41’: This is one of those topics where we are going to have some feedback from you out there. We will hear about different experiences. I do struggle with the sympathy side. We do want to express that, but it often becomes just a polite response. “I’m sorry to hear that.” It can often be so superficial. When we talk about empathy, we’re really talking about a depth of, you used the word understanding, a depth of appreciation, a depth of really walking a mile in another man’s shoes. You really get it. You get why someone is frustrated. I am sorry you are frustrated and I really get it. And here’s what we can do about it.
The impact that empathy can have on an organization is that depth of relationship and the critical role of empathy in truly developing and maintaining relationships.
Empathy Is About Sharing
Graham ‘2:44′: It’s a shared experience. So if I talk about a situation that was difficult for me. For instance, my father died two years ago. I was talking to someone who had just had his father die and we were able to talk in a way that wasn’t just superficial. “Oh, I’m so sorry.” We started talking about how you hear your father’s voice at various times of the day. You’re in the club who lost their fathers, too. You are nodding with me. You know what that’s like. You could be empathetic in that case. Until my father died, I thought when friends’ parents died, I thought it was just terrible. It’s deeper now. You talk about that shared experience. With this person, we had a bond that is really deep that was built over that one, 90-second discussion about hearing the voice of your father even though he is gone.
Porterfield ‘3:47’: Can you find that thing? Think about it in a work situation. We aren’t usually talking about those types of tings. But that’s what’s going on underneath the layers of a work situation. There are family pressures and experience that people bring with them into the workplace and empathy allows us in a careful way to engage in those.
When there is a shared experience, that certainly makes empathy maybe a little easier. If I haven’t had that same experience, then it’s incumbent on me to use good listening skills and to ask questions and help me understand how that feels.
Empathy Builds Relationships
Porterfield ‘4:34’: We can’t just blow it off and say, “I’s sorry that happened.” But really we need to ask those more probing questions that allow me to understand what you are going through, even though I haven’t potentially. But then I can appreciate where are. Certainly from a personal level, that’s really important in relationships.
Graham ‘4:58’: At one point in my career, I was a newspaper reporter. So much of being a reporter is asking questions and being empathetic because you have to talk to that person who was involved in the fire, the plane they thought was going to crash, in a tornado, you name it. You are constantly asking people questions. They don’t respond if you just ask for their story. You’ve got to develop that shared experience, that rapport, and not make them feel like it’s a story. But it’s their story. That’s one of the things that empathy really brings about. We start to get to share what;’s our story, what’s behind the mask, or what’s behind the surface.
As we get into being empathetic, we start to develop trust, shared experience and that leads to additional opportunities.
Graham ‘5:59’: You and I have certainly seen it. At our first breakfast, remember, we were reading a book together and talking through it. We’ve come far from there.Now, we share very detailed, intimate things because we have shared a lot with each other. That grows over time. And frankly, that’s what enables us to do these podcasts. We have a shared trust for each other. This is not as scripted out as some people might think. We pull curveballs on each other. If someone pulls a curveball, it’s because one of us thinks it’s the right thing. And we trust each other to know the right thing. That’s different than just us saying, “Hey, let’s do a podcast. Here’s what the topic is. Go.” That’s a great example of what empathy allows us. Empathy allows us to deepen a relationship, build that trust and it opens door to additional opportunities, which is where the value is to an organization.
Porterfield ‘7:05’: Exactly. And let’s turn to the organization. As you are listening to this discussion, there’s that possibility that you might hear this and say I just need to be sappy at work with all those conversations that go on. At the same time, we don’t want to turn this and say that there’s just this ulterior motive. Please pretend to be empathetic so you can benefit. What we want to see for organizations is that by understanding, knowing and engaging at a greater level, I know more about the people I am working with, the experiences they have, where they might just be responsible for developing this or doing that. Suddenly, I realize that you have experiences we can use. Bob, you used to be a journalist. Bob, maybe you can help us understand this thing.
With empathy, we have the opportunity to be innovative, to look at things in new ways, to be creative, to solve new problems because now there’s additional levels that we can draw from that at the surface we would be at resume level.
Porterfield ‘8:12’: I see you know Microsoft Excel. So go make a spreadsheet, which is great.
But if we can operate at a level when I understand and appreciate your experience, I haven’t had that life experience, but you bring it, and we can integrate it into some of our operations, we are operating our organization at whole new level.
Empathy Fuels Other Soft Skills
Graham ‘8:34’: That new level leads to additional opportunities. It really does spark creativity at all levels. The other thing that I keep repeating is it engenders that trust that’s really critical to be able to take the next step in organizations. If you don’t trust the people you are working with, it’s really hard to advance anything. Everyone is worried about their own skin. Am I going to have a job? Is this going to work out? What’s in it for me? If you are in it to win for the organization, then everyone gets cared for along the way because you are leveraging your strengths. When empathy allows us to see people’s strengths, it really helps us to position ourselves and others in better positions to succeed. It makes each workday a whole lot more fun. If I had to do spreadsheets for these podcasts, I would go crazy. The production stuff I do is great. You do some of the other things for it. We have a really good partnership because we know each other’s strengths through those discussions and understanding of our life experience. If we had to do photography, I would have you do it because I know you have done photography. I wouldn’t take a picture. That’s silly. You’ve done it. When we get to writing, we tend to fall more toward me. That’s really the key. A lot of organizations have that sense of empathy that’s not real. It’s the surface empathy, or it may only be sympathy. If you start to look at people’s challenges and what the lessons were from that which could help
Porterfield ’10:53′: We have been drawing on some of the information published by the Center for Creative Leadership. They have done some work on empathy. They put out a white paper. They drill it down as empathy is certainly positive. Showing you care is part of it. That authenticity, being aware of the needs of other, are also parts of it. That’s the edge we always get into with emotional intelligence, that awareness, which is a big part of that emotional intelligence. But it also gets down to building and maintaining relationships. Think about that. We know people might be saying there’s nothing new talking about empathy.
But we are dealing with a multi-generational workforce right now where we don’t share the same life experience.
A New Workforce
Porterfield ’11:46′: You and I deal with it in the classroom. We are dealing with millennials, who have very distinct life experiences. They have seen things as they grew up. They have experienced technology that we didn’t. It’s wired into them. Now we are looking at the next generation. That edge generation has a whole other set of life experience. To be effective in this multi-generational workforce, we need to understand each other. We need to truly empathize with each other and get those barriers broken down. Empathy is really going to be a hot item as we figure out how to deal with this new workforce.
Graham ’12:31′: It’s funny you bring up millennials and the classroom. Last semester, I was having trouble with the technology in my classroom. I used the same classroom for both two classes. In the first class, I had a student come up because I couldn’t get the technology resolved. The student said to me, “It must be hard for you because of all this technology.” My reaction was that he wasn’t being helpful. Let’s do class without the technology. In the second class, a student came up as I had the same problem, and he said, “Let me try to fix that for you while you go ahead.” That was really empathetic. That student was clear that he and I had different experiences, and my student could understand how hard it is to be in the front of the room when your technology doesn’t work. The one student didn’t do much. The other student gave me that wow. He showed me something. I asked the student after class why he came up, and he told me he had been in the classroom last week and he had to give a presentation and the technology wouldn’t work. He did it without his PowerPoint. He had lived what I was going through and he wanted to make sure I didn’t go through the same thing because he knew the feelings that went behind that, along with the frustration and difficulty.
The Key Is Listening
Porterfield ’14:09′: We want to wrap this up with what we can do about it. It does start with the listening, not the asking. It’s the listening. When someone shows frustration, stop and say, “You seem really frustrated with this assignment. I have seen you do similar assignments before. What’s different this time?” That’s an opportunity to engage. You might find out that it’s new software that they aren’t comfortable with. Or they have some distractions. There’s some tension in work, with a co-worker, or outside of the work situation. It really starts with us intentionally listening and watching for those cues. Instead of letting them go or doing that passive “Oh, I’m sorry” is to really go ahead and ask that question. “Tell me, I don’t understand. How can I help you?” Really take that breath.
Porterfield ’15:11′: It’s also what we see with that other part of the argument. Empathy takes a lot of energy. It really does. Especially for some of us, it’s really taxing. Harvard Business Review last year had an article that said empathy isn’t worth it. It takes a lot of energy; it’s exhausting; there’s a zero-sum game. It’s like empathy is in a bucket. If I give you a cup and him a cup and her a cup, then I won’t have enough when I get home. There’s some twisted visions of empathy. But I will accept the fact that empathy does take energy.
From an organizational standpoint, we see the positive side and we see it as a return on assets and a return on investment.
Shifting to Person-Focused
Porterfield ’16:01′: Yes, I can’t spend all day at the watercooler having open sessions to bond with my group. But I can do need to be ready to engage at that level at the right time and then move back into doing the work. It’s a tight edge that we have to walk.
Graham ’16:21′: You mentioned that white paper from the Center for Creative Leadership. I want to read one sentence from that white paper. It talks about leaders. It says, “Leaders today need to be more person-focused and be able to work with those not just in the next cubicle, but also with those in other buildings and other countries.” They set that up and I like the phrase “person-focused.” Empathy really gets at person-focus, not task-focused. A lack of empathy is really task-focused. Person-focused is really who is the right person for this task, who can achieve this result based on past experience, past success, what they bring to the table.
Using empathy allow you to look at a person or a team more holistically and drawing on that to make your best assessment of how to move forward.
Graham ’17:14′: We probably should draw the line there. That’s quite enough. My head is spinning from all of that empathy talk. I think we did make some headway.
Porterfield ’17:29′: Let’s be empathetic for you, our listeners. Hold it, we have just dumped a whole lot on you. We will put up some notes on this and you can look at the articles we mentioned. You can map your own way into this.
Next Week’s Episode
Graham ’18:15′: Now, I am going to tease next week’s episode. I am going to be a little vague. We have a little debate on what the next soft skills we will talk about is. We are trying to do this in a non-strategic order. One of us usually has one of the soft skills speak to us for the week. We’ll see what comes next week. Thanks for listening, good day, and good soft skills.