Sunday, August 10, 2008


Empathy is the capacity to recognize or understand another's state of mind or emotion. It is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes", or to in some way experience the outlook or emotions of another being within oneself. It is therefore the essence of connection in communication.

Great communication results from understanding differing perspectives in all their depth and complexity and attempts to develop a singular mutually supportable position that joins the best of all points of view. This is perhaps the greatest weakness of the advocacy method of communication - that it does NOT embrace various perspectives and frequently distorts them in order to dismiss any point of view but one.

In order to really understand another perspective one must be curious and open, and then one must seek to empathize with the other party. One must seek to understand under what circumstances and by what analysis can another point of view be created from a single set of facts.

Empathy is the motive for intense listening and the catalyst for connection. By careful inquiry, we learn not only what a person feels but why. When we seek to understand why a person feels a certain way about a set of facts, we are honoring that person and thereby building safety. We are also embracing inquiry as our method of communication.

My best communication comes when I do my best to find reason through an advocate’s perspective with them - that is, to try to find more evidence and inference to support their point of view. As I do this, I find that many times they enthusiastically explain the nuances of their position and, as any weaknesses are revealed, willingly adapt their perspective to resolve to the strongest position to which we can mutually agree. Of course, mutually agreeing on a single position is really the outcome we seek with collaboration. By employing empathy and thorough the listening demanded, we are able to arrive at our targeted collaborative decision even though the other party may not be aware that we engaged in a collaboration - they think I was just agreeing with them.

Empathy takes practice because it requires intense listening and concentration. It is especially difficult if you have judged the other party’s perspective in some way as flawed. It is, of course, best to suspend judgment altogether until you can evaluate the merits of the idea logically. If you need to regain your objectivity, try thinking about this question as you talk to the other person: “The other party has a very different take on the facts as I understand them; I should explore what they think the fact are, and what evidence they have used to interpret them”. In doing this, it is critical that you give them the benefit of the doubt regarding their being intelligent and capable people.

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