Empathy Equals Scary Vulnerability—And Is Totally Necessary For Success

Want to lead, design, write, or relate? Start with empathy.

Just because you hug instead of handshake and use a lot of exclamation points in email doesn't mean you are some patron saint of empathy.

To truly hear someone--be they colleague, spouse, or customer--you need to make yourself a vessel. Over at the Pastry Box Project, Sara Wachter-Boettcher riffs on the proper mindset:

We can’t begin being empathetic when another person arrives. We have to already have made a space in our lives where empathy can thrive. And that means being open--truly open--to feeling emotions we may not want to feel. It means allowing another’s experiences to gut us. It means ceding control. Empathy begins with vulnerability. And being vulnerable, especially in our work, is fucking terrifying.

Sociologist/badass Brené Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. And as she told us, there's no opting out of being vulnerable: "If you are alive and in relationship and in business, you do it hourly." And as Brad Feld recently wrote, believing that leading is the opposite of being vulnerable is bullshit.

So how do we get better at being vulnerable to ourselves? We go toward the icky bits. Like Rilke said, our biggest dragons guard our biggest treasures. And like Freud understood, we cultivate emotional self-transparency. We feel the thing that feels bad, and we don't shame ourselves for not liking parts of ourselves. (Shame, we know, is the enemy of creativity.) In this way, the tense grip of insecurity is loosened finger by finger. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.

Toward detanglement

As Wachter-Boettcher, who wrote a book I really want to read, captures pithily, greatness demands rawness. By fronting and by putting up shields, we can keep others at distance and "tell them the story we want them to see"--though that aloofness tends to numb you.

"(Distance) protects you from your own emotions, sure," Wachter-Boettcher writes. "But it also makes it impossible to feel anyone else’s."

And if we're in context of relationships--and surprise, that's what our present social era is founded upon--we need to be able to feel what our teams, our customers, and our souls need.

Marianne Wilson says that our "playing small does not serve the world." At heart, if we want to be great, we need to be raw.

The pastry box project

Drake Baer is a contributing writer for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user BMcIvr]

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4 Comments

  • Gadsdenpatriot

    Great article. I would have enjoyed it more without the use of foul language. It is unnecessary and demeans the author as well as the publication. 

  • Robert Dallas

    Great article! The trick, of course, is carrying it out. Being vulnerable, by definition, is one of the hardest things we can do. But once we begin to open ourselves to others, and see ourselves survive, it sets up a positive feedback loop such that we trust being open with others more and more. A nice side effect is they automatically get the understanding that such behavior can be safe through your example. 

  • melyana klue

    A refreshing perspective from D. Baer, who reminds us of  Wachter-Boettcher" s comment, "greatness demands rawness."