WTF do Managers know about Love? 3 Tips to be a more Empathic Leader

Dinner turns sour

It seemed an evening like any other. Tim and his wife Jen were eating dinner, tonight Jen made her signature dish Beef Lasagne, and Tim had opened a bottle of red wine. They watched a comedian on the television, Tim laughing loudly, but Jen didn’t seem so impressed.

Tim had barely finished the last bite when Jen scooped up his plate with a huff. When she got to the kitchen, Jen yelled to Tim that he hadn’t taken out rubbish or changed the light bulb over the stove or cleaned the windows like he had promised.

Tim was perplexed. He was going to do the bins after dinner, the light wasn’t a big deal and the windows weren’t even that dirty! The angry conversation that ensued left both of them upset with Tim thinking that Jen was nitpicking and Jen still annoyed that Tim didn’t even remember Valentine’s Day.

Jen and Tim’s night might be a familiar story, for some, far too familiar for some! But this story is indicative of many interactions we have in our lives everyday. Irritation, confusion, miscommunication and weakening of relationships have always existed, but today they are being accelerated and amplified by a busy world and technology.

Leaders of the future need to ensure these types of misunderstanding are either reduced, or identified and resolved quickly in an increasingly diverse workforce and complex environment.

This is incredibly hard. This might be the biggest leadership challenge of the next 50 years!

Any one person has complex and ever changing array of thoughts, ideas and beliefs. Mix a few people together along with other systems, goals and competing priorities and you get the perfect breeding ground for Jen & Tim to burst into an argument at any time.

So here are three steps a Leader can take to build more powerful and engaged teams using principles of Empathic Leadership.

Tip 1 – Watch out for Switch Tracking

In their book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone describe the phenomenon of Switch Tracking. In railway terms, a switch track is one where the train changes from one set of tracks to another, the switch triggers a change in the trains direction. In conversations, switch tracking occurs when the topic of a discussion between two people diverges.

For example, in the case of Jen & Tim, Tim began to defend his failure to take out the rubbish and focused his next arguments on his particular actions and the activities in question. But at that moment, Jen had stopped heading down that path. In her mind, these were examples and evidence of Tim’s thoughtlessness which culminated in his forgetting Valentine’s Day.

In many calm situations switch tracking, in particular the divergence of common subject, is picked up by one or both of the people in the conversation and rectified quickly. However, in rushed, heated or emotive conversations, it becomes easy for the fired up locomotives to blast their horns loudly and steam on down their own track all the while derailing understanding.

As a leader, your job is to identify switch tracking quickly, particularly on the passionate and emotion-fuelled topics that really matter. Here is 3 little steps:

  1. Calmly identify and intervene – highlighting the divergence
  2. Lead the conversation to resolve both topics independently if possible
  3. Give it a name for future use – naming this can allow participants to more easily self regulate in the future

Tip 2 – The Curiosity of Socrates

The famous quote attributed to the famous Socrates of Athens goes:

“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” Whether he said it or not, or if indeed he was the wisest man alive are all interesting but debatable points. The real nub of wisdom from Socrates is better summed up in another quote from him:

“Wisdom begins in wonder.”

Today the Socratic Method for debate still remains a powerful tool. While I am not wanting to dive into the complete art, the second tip for leaders to be more empathic is to start at the same position as Socrates would have: start with curiosity.

If in our earlier scenario, Tim should not have been so quick to rush to his own defense. In this situation, if Tim was channelling his inner sense of wonder, he may instead asked himself a simple set of questions based on the information at hand.

“Jen seemed to get the plates in a hurry. What might be driving that? Jen is mentioning a number of small issues around the house, why might they matter? Do they really matter? What else might be going on?”

From this position of wonder, Tim can now, instead of addressing the individual items, search for more information to explore a larger issue of narrative. He may be in a better position to ask Jen about what might be going on? He may even think to look at the calendar and see that he forgot Valentine’s Day.

There is certainly a lot more that needs to happen after this starting position to rectify the situation, he still forgot Valentine’s Day afterall. But by starting from a place of curiosity and wonder rather than defense and attack, Tim will be better placed to understand what is really going on and how to move to a better place.

Tip 3 – See Expressed but look for Drivers

The complexities of minds of human beings can not be overstated. We are strange beasts at times finding our own meaning, reason and logic in very odd places. What most neuroscientists and behavioural economist agree is that while facts and logic may guide our thinking, emotions are the driver with a hold of the decision making steering wheel.

Emotions are a driving factor in almost everything we do, from choosing what clothes to wear, what car to buy, what food to eat or what tone to use in your voice. They heavily influence the way we remember the past and equally guide what choices we make in the future. Whether it is the power of love or hate, the intensity of our emotions can make molehills look like mountains, or friends look like enemies in any situation.

For a deep dive into how we create emotions, how they influence our past, present and future, I recommend checking out the wonderful work of Lisa Feldman Barrett on how emotions are made and Daniel Kahneman on experience versus memory. The reality of this work is that emotions and the inner workings of our brains is an immensely complicated puzzle that great minds are still struggling to work out.

To help business leaders of today, I like to simplify the discussion of emotions into smaller, bite sized pieces. This one I call the 5 Driver Emotions.

Firstly, let’s think about what was going on with Jen. What emotions was she displaying in the scenario? Frustration, annoyance, anger and disappointment. These expressed emotions can look totally different in different people at different times and in different situations. The vast world of emotions and the granularity that comes with it makes this challenging if not impossible to pin down.

So instead, I teach leaders to look first acknowledge, but then look past these expressed emotions and instead look for the Driver emotions. For simplicity again, I suggest that there are only 5 Driver Emotions we want to focus on:

Hope, Love, Pride, Justice and Fear… these are the emotions that matter!

(NB. These are not all the emotions, they are maybe not even the most important, but they are the 5 that we use as a baseline to help leaders start to work with emotions more effectively).

So for the final time, let’s think about Tim and Jen. From Tim’s vantage point, what might he have been able to see were the possible Driver Emotions? Was it injustice that he was not doing his part in the relationship? Mixed with a feeling that she was not feeling cared about?

If these were possible Driver Emotions, Tim could then ask questions to try to test these drivers. He could then look to understand the deeper emotions that are creating the situation and look to address these instead of being caught in the chaos of the expressed emotions.

If you need some help in developing Empathy in your business, Empathic Consulting (http://empathicconsulting.com/) provides keynote talks, training workshops and experiential immersions that drive real leadership results. Contact daniel@empathicconsulting.com today.

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