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Empathy doesn’t mean “be nice”

There’s never just one way to empathize, but there’s always a good reason to.

Empathy doesn’t mean “be nice”
[Photo: Emma Frances Logan/Unsplash]

Here’s what empathy is: It’s putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, or at least sliding your feet into them and trying them on for size. It’s about understanding and perspective taking. Sometimes, it can lead to a behavior shift that might make you more benevolent, but that’s more a byproduct than a fundamental condition of empathizing.

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Here’s what empathy isn’t: It’s not courteousness, good manners, and a pleasant tone of voice. It’s not generosity. And it isn’t about being deferential. Empathy is more challenging than that. Taking someone else’s perspective—the only real precondition to empathizing—requires us to stretch beyond our comfort zones in order to try and understand something or someone. This sort of stretching, even more so than run-of-the-mill kindness (which of course is important in its own right) is exactly what we need more of in today’s workplace if we want to get the most out of our teams, our work, and ultimately, ourselves.


Related: Emotional intelligence pioneer Daniel Goleman: “We don’t need more empathy”


You can train yourself to empathize (and probably should)

Perhaps the only important thing that niceness and empathy have in common is that they’re both learned skills–behaviors that take practice. Beyond that, their resemblance is superficial.

I recently reviewed how my company was working with some of our clients. One, a large technology company, preferred to conduct all meetings without presentations. The client’s team didn’t care about polished documents, instead prioritizing the evidence of our prototyping. While this is a totally understandable style of working, it wasn’t mine. Generally speaking, most of our clients want decks. Lots of decks. Decks that share research findings. Decks that depict a new brand positioning or organizational-design approach. Decks that describe the outcomes of prior decks.

But this client wasn’t interested in any of that, so we needed to shift our perspective. Our team worked to put ourselves into our client’s shoes–understanding how to embody their preferred style of work in our own. Each week, as we prepared for our next meeting, we became more comfortable shifting our approach into a format and perspective suitable to their needs. Our decks turned into prototypes. Meetings weren’t guided by slides, but by stories of failed experiments and lessons learned. In time, our relationship grew stronger due to our ability to meet this client with empathy and share our work in a form they understood.

Niceness wasn’t part of the equation. We weren’t changing gears in order to be kind or generous or polite. We were doing it in order to be effective.

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Related: Ask these four empathetic questions when you’re struggling to listen


Seven archetypes worth empathizing with

This experience helped my team and I hit upon a handful of “empathic archetypes,” different styles of empathy that help us take others’ perspectives more easily. We arrived at seven of them, then mapped out a few corresponding behaviors for each. These archetypes have helped us understand how different personalities employ different techniques to gather perspective. For instance, our tech client embodied the archetype of the “Alchemist,” who likes to prototype and test ideas experimentally.

These are the other six archetypes we hit upon:

  • Seekers are daring and unafraid to take risks or pivot, gaining new perspectives from their fearless drive to explore and expand.
  • Conveners host conversations. They understand the value an environment plays in creating the right circumstances for perspective taking. It’s all about setting the stage for empathy to emerge.
  • Sages value presence and make an effort to remain in the “now” when working with colleagues, placing both the past and future aside in exchange for connection in the moment.
  • Cultivators see the long game. They’re big-picture people who can look out at the horizon and know where they’re heading. They use this perspective to help others align and orient their actions appropriately.
  • Inquirers ask deep questions. They know how to probe past the superficial and get to the heart of a matter. They gain perspective through inquiry.
  • Confidants listen. They have the patience to truly hear what others have to say and don’t get distracted by a desire to control the conversation. Their listening leads them to connection and understanding.

Related: How “radical empathy” can improve employee performance and morale


In other words, there are different ways to empathize–all of them important. Far more than just showing kindness, we can all show up in our relationships and elicit understanding from the world around us. And unlike other personality-mapping frameworks, each of us are all of these archetypes under different circumstances, never just one all the time. Still, we’re highly unequally distributed, gravitating naturally toward one or two of these archetypes more often, while others feel foreign and uncomfortable. This is normal.

But with self-observation and repetition, we can stretch into more of these roles more easily. Doing so can help us become more well-rounded, diverse thinkers, partners, and leaders. So take a moment to consider which archetypes feel most natural for you. Then ask yourself if you think your colleagues and clients share the same perspective. It’s likely that they don’t entirely map one-to-one with your own.

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By getting more comfortable with each archetype, though, you can start to understand how different people engage with the world–and get better at connecting and collaborating yourself. It takes practice, but a more empathic you will thank you for it.


Michael Ventura is the CEO and founder of strategy and design firm Sub Rosa. He is also the author of Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership, which publishes this week.

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