How Empathy Paves The Way For Innovation

Sometimes, the best weapon to have in your business arsenal is a little empathy. Learn how you can help yourself by thinking about others.

In my role as an executive coach, I often work with leaders who have difficulty building support for their ideas and priorities. Especially in complex organizations, such as pharmaceuticals and universities, leaders can often become disoriented by the political landscape, where diverse stakeholders compete for shrinking resources and allegiances are fluid. Yet in all cases, my clients can point to someone in their organizations who has mastered the politics and garnered support for their ideas. And while much distinguishes those who can successfully maneuver in these complex settings, a prominent characteristic is their ability to "resonate."

In his best-selling book Social Intelligence: The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships, Daniel Goleman goes beyond his prior work on emotional intelligence to "lift the curtain on an emerging science, one that almost daily reveals startling insights into our interpersonal world. The most fundamental revelation of this new discipline is: we are wired to connect."1

On the one hand, such a discovery seems pretty obvious. We all fall in love; we all get angry with one another on occasion. We not only connect with one another, we also connect with cats, parrots, trees, and even space aliens. So recognizing that we human beings are "wired to connect" is, well, kind of stating the obvious, like "water is wet" and "things move around."

But what is so powerful about Goleman's study is that we are more than simply wired to connect. In the words of Daniel Stern, MD, a research psychiatrist at the University of Geneva, "our nervous systems are constructed to be captured by the nervous systems of others, so that we can experience others as if from within their own skin, as well as from within our own."2 In short, we are not just wired to connect, we can resonate—experience the "other" intimately, directly, and unmistakably.

Stern investigates this human capacity for directly knowing the other in his book, The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life, where he painstakingly documents through clinical observation and interviews how we as human beings permeate each other's presence. While Stern's fascinating work concentrates mainly on the relationship between patient and analyst, his findings shed profound light on our everyday experience, where we can often find ourselves living a "shared feeling voyage...where two people travel together in the present moment through a similar landscape of feeling where shifts in feelings serve as landmarks," which includes "a mutual recognition of making this voyage together...an inter-subjective phenomenon."3

Needless to say, experiencing such resonance is a profound human ability, and confidently "experiencing others from within their skin" at work can make all the difference in the world when it comes to creating a dignified, inspiring workplace.

On one assignment, my client, an experienced research scientist sporting both an MD and a PhD, constantly found himself at odds with his commercial and operational colleagues on how best to bring a promising surgical device through late-stage clinical development. Arrogant, impatient, and unable to "resonate," my client was often out of touch with his colleagues and in particular a toxicologist who felt diminished and disrespected by his rudeness. "She is incompetent and in over her head," he would often remark. "She should stop pretending to be a physician and stick to her knitting."

After several months of coaching, my client and I had a breakthrough conversation:

"How did your meeting go with the toxicologist yesterday?" I asked.

"I am trying my best and I think I am getting better," he responded, trying to recollect positively his attempts at being more collaborative and less rude.

"Did you notice anything new about her? Anything that you may have overlooked in the past?" I probed.

"Not really," he hesitated. "She continues to keep a tight control over things and she did seem a bit tired."

"A bit tired . . . how so?" I pushed.

"I don't know, like she was maybe sad or something?" he intuited.

And for a moment my client paused and, with a sudden glance of recognition, understood what it felt to "experience others from within their skin."

"You are right," he softly recollected. "She is sad—why, I don't know—and I had never seen it before. I guess she really is more complex than I noticed. And she kind of touched me. It feels like this is the first time that I have actually seen her!"

"And what you may not know," I gently informed my client, "is that she has recently divorced and is now a single mom of two small kids."

As my client slowly looked up, we both paused and glimpsed each other—resonant and relieved.

Like so many of us at work, my client had blindly cut himself off from his colleagues. He had dulled his natural ability to resonate and experience others from within their skin. Yet, through self-reflection and hard work, my client was able to revitalize his instincts to touch others directly, and he continued to develop, becoming attuned and open to his colleagues and more skillful in building alliances.

The ability to "resonate" is crucial at work, whether we are seeking to retain talent, make a sale, assess a problem, or successfully innovate. As reported in an article in the Harvard Business Review, "Finding and Grooming Breakthrough Innovators," the authors' research found that the defining skill of great organizational innovators is resonating—appreciating the hearts and minds of others:

Innovators must be able to walk into a conference room full of diverse constituents, including colleagues, customers, subordinates, bosses, vendors, and partners, and quickly discern the underlying motivation of each one. They leverage that information to craft and communicate a message that resonates with every constituent. This is the art of bringing a diverse group onto the same page—and it is absolutely essential to transforming an interesting idea into a company-wide innovation.4

Resonating with our world and those around us, whether in a business meeting or just walking down a city street, is how we live life fearlessly, and we can learn to reawaken this ability to resonate by practicing mindfulness-awareness meditation.

When we sit on a meditation cushion for hours, weeks, and years, we eventually discover a simple and dynamic fact: our mind is perpetually curious. Not in the sense that we are constantly searching for a treasure or an insight to a problem, though such curiosity arises, no doubt. Rather, the curiosity that we rediscover through mindfulness-awareness meditation is a creative, agile awareness — a soft, pliable, yet sharply alert fascination with our immediate circumstances. Whatever our situation offers, be it hot or cold, pleasant or irritating, inviting or repulsive, we discover that our minds are fearlessly inquisitive and willing to resonate with whatever occurs. Traditionally this form of resonant wisdom arising out of meditation is likened to a child's delight, a parent's loving attention, or a tiger's curiosity. By dropping our arrogance and fear through training the mind in meditation, we attune ourselves to our immediate circumstances and discover that we are, by our very nature, intimately curious and in touch with our world.

Traditionally, our ability to resonate and experience others from within their skin requires a fearless commitment to four existential immediacies of being alive: nowness, egolessness, openness, and noble decorum.

Nowness
The singular unavoidable and undeniably penetrating reality that we face is "nowness." Through the practice of mindfulness-awareness meditation we awaken to this vivid, raw immediacy that is ungraspable, yet inviting us to touch and be touched. Only in nowness can we resonate with others; "now" is when we live our lives—everything else is some form of rehearsal.

Egolessness
When we cultivate awareness in meditation, we let go of tracking experiences from the view of "me" and "mine," "yours" and "theirs." Through such "egolessness" we become aware that the whole situation resonates, interweaving "me," "others," "activities," and "communications" as a vibrant cloth. There is no particular object of awareness or any scorekeeper. Instead, we find that we are authentically curious as the situation brings us along.

Openness
By sitting still in meditation for long periods, we inevitably open, free to touch the situation completely on its terms. Such openness is an expression of a fearless trust in our experience and in ourselves. Just as a water bowl reflects the moon, we resonate with our world, utterly impartial and completely available.

Noble Decorum

To resonate with our world and with those around us is to express a form of "cosmic courtesy" where we instinctively respect our world as sacred. We have given up on our complaints and aggression and we no longer speed past our experience as inconvenient nor rush toward the tasty bits to make us happy. We treat every aspect of our world with impeccable manners. Traditionally, such noble decorum is referred to as "One Taste"—resonating completely with each and every experience that presents itself.

The slogan "Resonate" encourages us to totally and completely open to our world and recognize such openness to be ultimately compassionate. We are wired to connect, able to experience others from within their skin—if we have the courage and gentleness to do so.

Related: Great Leaders Know When To Stand Still.

From Fearless at Work by Michael Carroll, © 2012 by Michael Carroll. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA. www.shambhala.com.

Michael Carroll, author of Fearless at Work: Timeless Teachings for Awakening Confidence, Resilience and Creativity in the Face of Life's Demands, worked on Wall Street and in the publishing industry for over two decades, holding executive positions at Shearson Lehman Brothers, Paine Webber, Simon & Schuster, and the Walt Disney Company. Founding director of AAW Associates, Carroll consults with major corporations on bringing mindfulness into the workplace. He is a longtime student of Buddhist meditation and an authorized teacher in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa. Carroll has taught mindfulness meditation at the Wharton School of Business, Columbia University, Kripalu, and the Cape Cod Institute.
For more information please visit http://www.awakeatwork.net, and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter.

1. Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships (New York: Bantam Books, 2006), 4.
2. Daniel Stern, The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life (New York: Norton, 2004), 76.
3. Ibid.
4. Jeffrey Cohn, Jon Katzenbach, and Gus Vlak, "Finding and Grooming Breakthrough Innovators," Harvard Business Review (December 2008).

[Image: Flickr user Stepan Radibog]

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2 Comments

  • Diane

    Excellant article. Thank you for sharing this profound and concise perspective.

  • Cindy Wigglesworth

    Love this, Michael.  Beautiful.  Very resonant with Spiritual Intelligence.  Thank you - will have to cross link to my Huffington Post blog so others can see this beautiful work.  Especially love "Noble Decorum"!