Mark Goulston is is a psychiatrist, business consultant, executive coach, and a hostage-negotiation trainer for the FBI. He’s also the bestselling author of the books "Get Out of Your Own Way" , "Get Out of Your Own Way at Work" and his new book, "Just Listen". Last week we profiled Mark in our post "Listening Tips from a Hostage Negotiator". This week I've asked him to share this brilliant excerpt from his book on empathy.
The Empathy Jolt
By Mark Goulston, M.D.
How It Works
Empathy is a sensory experience; that is, it activates the sensory part of your nervous system, including the mirror neurons we’ve talked about. Anger, on the other hand, is a motor action—usually a reaction to some perceived hurt or injury by another person. So by taking people out of anger and shifting them into an empathic behavior, the Empathy Jolt™ moves them from the motor brain to the sensory brain.
To put it another way, anger and empathy—like matter and antimatter—can’t exist in the same place at the same time. Let one in, and you have to let the other one go. So when you shift a blamer into empathy, you stop the person’s angry ranting dead in its tracks.
And what about the person who’s on the defensive? Initially, this human punching bag is frustrated because no matter what he or she is trying to mirror outward——I’m sorry, I’m confused, I’m scared, I had a good reason for what I did—the ignorant blamer is blind to it. As a result, the person who’s under attack is usually in a state of quiet, barely controlled rage.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, however, the blamer knows just how sad, angry, scared, or lonely the defender feels and spontaneously turns into an ally. When the defender feels understood by the blamer and that they are on the same side, there’s nothing to defend against. The defender’s wall, and with it his unspoken rage and frustration, dissipates. The relief from no longer feeling “fear or loathing” toward the blamer spontaneously triggers a tremendous rush of gratitude and—miraculously—the person’s quiet rage turns into forgiveness and, beyond that, a willingness to work toward solutions.
When to Employ the Empathy Jolt
The Empathy Jolt™ is a powerful intervention to use when two people in your life are beating on each other brutally instead of communicating— or when at least one person is more interested in attacking than in listening. Use it at the first sign that a conflict is getting out of control.
Here’s an example:
Manager of a software team: We’ve targeted this release for next week, but I hear there’s a problem.
Simon: Yeah, there’s a problem. Kim didn’t give me enough time to work on it. Her targets aren’t realistic. Nobody could get this done in time.
Kim (furious): Simon could if he did what I ask of him. We’re late because he spent three extra days adding a bunch of graphics bells and whistles that nobody cares about. We have to sell this product but instead we have a bunch of worthless features and no product to sell. Don’t blame me for this mess.
Software manager: Okay. Before we talk about what’s going on with the release, I’d like to do something first. I know that both of you are extraordinarily good at what you do. In fact, you’re two of the strongest performers I’ve ever worked with. And I also know that it’s very hard for you to work together. So I’d like to ask each of you a question, with the goal of seeing if we can make this situation work better for both of you.
Kim and Simon (both defensively): Okay.
Software manager: Let’s start with you, Kim. Here’s the question: If I were to ask Simon what frustrates him most about working with you, what would he say?
Kim (surprised by the question): Um. Well. Uh . . . I think he might say that I don’t respect his talent. Or that I’m more interested in setting deadlines than in making the product as good as it could be.
Software manager: So, what does that make him want to do?
Kim: Get mad. Because—look, I know he’s really interested in making this product the best one on the market and he can’t. And I understand that, I really do, but the company doesn’t work that way.
Software manager: Thanks. I appreciate that. And now I’d like to ask the same question of Simon. Simon, If I were to ask Kim what frustrates her most about working with you, what would she say?
Simon (disarmed by Kim’s understanding): Well . . . um . . . okay, I think she’d say that upper management expects her to meet deadlines and she gets blamed if we’re late because I spend time adding stuff that management didn’t ask for. And I really do understand that. I mean, to me it’s wrong to send out a product that’s not as good as it could be, but I can see how that’s a problem for Kim.
Software manager: And how does that make her feel?
Simon: Probably scared that they’ll can her. Or mad at me for screwing things up for her.
Software manager: Thanks for answering that so honestly. Now, I know that for right now we want to focus on getting this release done as quickly as we can. So let’s work out a schedule and see if we can still meet the target date. But would you two be willing to meet afterward and see if there’s a way to get Simon’s goal of making the best possible product to mesh better with Kim’s need to meet our targets? I’m confident that you can come up with some good solutions together.
When you use the Empathy Jolt™, avoid the mistake of interjecting your own opinions during the process—even if they’re positive ones (“I certainly agree about what you’re saying about Simon’s talents”).
Your goal is to get two people to mirror each other, and they can’t do that if you’re standing between them. So facilitate, but don’t butt in.
Also, understand that you’re not trying to solve the problem that’s on the table right now (a kid who’s violating curfew, a coworker who’s missing deadlines, etc.). Instead, you’re shifting people to a place where they can solve the problem—and the next one that comes up, and the one after that.
Do this right and you’ll all have fewer problems to solve, because people who experience an Empathy Jolt™ will have less desire in the future to rip each other apart and more desire to make things go right for each other. That’s because they’ve actually “been” each other, for at least a moment, and now they know what it feels like.
The Power of Analogy
Often you can use the Empathy Jolt™ to get another person to understand your own feelings. For example, say to a coworker who frequently leaves you in the lurch on projects, “Isn’t it frustrating when a client promises to send a check on time and then doesn’t, and we need to worry about whether the person’s going to stiff us—but we still need to be polite because we can’t risk offending the person?”
When the person says something like “Very,” say, “And doesn’t that make you feel angry and even scared about doing business with the person?”
After the person says, “Yes,” gently say, “Knowing how it feels to be blown off that way, would you want to do that to someone else?”
Most likely you’ll get a “No, of course not,” which is when you can say, “Well, you know, that’s how I feel when I need to count on you to get a project done and I’m not sure you’ll come through. I don’t want to hurt your feelings because I respect and like you, but I feel frustrated and scared when I’m not sure I can count on you.”
Odds are, the person will take this lesson to heart—and your brief Empathy Jolt™ will earn you far more cooperation in the future.
Using the Empathy Jolt™ on Yourself
Are you an ignorant blamer? The truth is that we all are, at one point or another in our lives. If you frequently find yourself in vicious arguments where you wield anger and blame as weapons, take action: awaken your own empathy.
1. Think of someone who frequently frustrates, angers, hurts, or disappoints you. This may be someone in your family, someone at work, or a friend.
2. Imagine that person doing one of the things that frustrates you. Select a behavior that, on an aggravation scale of 1 to 10, is at least an 8. Get this picture fully in your mind and be conscious of how it makes you feel as you think about it.
3. Now, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Imagine what the person would say if I asked what angers, hurts, or frustrates him or her most about you. Imagine you are the other person and say what this person would probably answer, such as, you’re hypercritical, you’re judgmental, you always want to play the martyr, or you’re controlling. Be honest about the negative things you do in this relationship.
4. Next, imagine that I ask this person how much it upsets him or her to be so frustrated and upset with you. Again, put yourself in this person’s shoes and say, “A lot.”
5. Now imagine me asking the other person, “Can you describe something hurtful that this person (you) has done?” Think about any hurtful acts you’ve committed in this relationship, and how they made the other person feel, and answer as if you’re that person.
6. Finally, on that same scale of 1 to 10, rate how you now score your level of aggravation with this person. What happened? Most likely, you felt angry at the beginning of this exercise, but the intensity of your anger dropped as you put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Typically, when I do this exercise with audiences, they start out at 8 or 9 and end up at 3 or 4. That’s because you can’t experience what another person is feeling and be angry at the person at the same moment in time.
So the next time you feel like ripping into someone who’s making you angry, take a deep breath, find a quiet place, and do this exercise first. Odds are you’ll save yourself, and the other person, a lot of grief.
You can’t be curious and on the attack at the same moment.
To make empathy come more naturally to you, give yourself an Empathy Jolt™ every day or so. For instance, when a coworker you don’t like much is on the phone with a difficult client, observe the situation and ask yourself, “How would I feel if I were him right now? Would this conversation make me angry, frustrated, or unhappy?” Or if your boss is brusquer than usual one day, ask yourself: “How would I feel if I had all of her responsibilities and worries today?”
The more you do this, the less stress and frustration you’ll feel with the people around you—and the better you’ll be at getting through to them.
Excerpted from Dr. Goulston's new book, Just Listen
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