People’s perceptions create their own reality and their behaviors are driven by this reality. People then act in a way they perceive to be in their own best self-interest, as they preceive.
The good news is, if we know these facts, they can help us better understanding each other. If we take the time to determine the motivating perceptions that mold someone’s reality, we can begin to communicate with them more effectively. Imagine the possibilities if everyone began to develop a better understanding of the people in their personal and professional lives. What If politicians really understood the motivating perceptions of their constituents and colleagues? What if nations understood how to reduce tensions and share their needs and interests so they could solve their differences? How much of a difference would it make?
The difficulty is that what I’m saying is no secret and yet people continue to make the same mistakes over and over. We intellectually understand that people are different. We intellectually understand that their perceptions of reality are influenced by their age, gender, race, nationality, religion, socio-economic status and life experiences. However, on an emotional level, it confuses us that other people don’t think like we do. After all, we are intelligent, rational people that see life and the world clearly. Our reality must be the true reality. So, when we’re talking about a hypothetical situation or one in which we have no emotional investment, we can intellectually agree that people have an understandable difference in perception that influences their reality. On the other hand, it becomes much more difficult when we have an emotional investment in an issue and our reality is in conflict with someone else’s.
The skill that enables us to navigate these difficult waters is called empathy. First, it’s important to define what empathy means. Many people confuse sympathy, which means, “an inclination to support or to agree with an opinion” with empathy which means, to develop an understanding and even feel another’s feelings, that contribute to an opinion. Empathy validates the right for another person to have their opinion, even though you may not agree with it.
Let me give you one example of what I’m talking about. Early in my career, I read an article in U.S. News and World Report about capital punishment. At the end of the article, it asked for readers to send in their opinions about the subject. I submitted my opinion, opposing capital punishment. In the next month’s issue, my opinion appeared along with several others. A week later, I received a letter in the mail from a father whose pregnant daughter had been killed in a brutal murder where her baby had been literally cut from her womb. The letter was angry and viciously attacked me personally and my position. I could feel the pain and emotion that jumped off the page with each word. He called me names I won’t reprint here, and hoped that my daughter would fall to the same fate as his so I would know his loss.
It would have been natural for me to have been offended by the personal attacks. Instead, I felt the pain that he must have felt. I had two young daughters who would one day grow up, get married and have their own children. I couldn’t imagine losing either one in such a brutal, meaningless way. I could empathize with his position and understand how he could support capital punishment. It didn’t change my position of opposing capital punishment but I fully understood his. His life experience strongly influenced his perception of reality. In his reality, capital punishment was not only justifiable, it was mandatory for him to cope with an event that defied a rational mind.
Of course, the point is not about the merits of Capital Punishment. The point is, that in almost any situation, no matter how strongly you believe in your reality, there is someone else who believes just as strongly in theirs. Have you every been at a football game when they played our National Anthem and you got a lump in your throat as you saw a formation of jets fly over the stadium? Perhaps at the Olympic games you watched as an American athlete stood on the gold medal podium as the Star Spangled Banner was played and our flag was raised. Remember the sense of pride that you felt? There are people in stadiums all over the world, with the same sense of pride, listening to their national anthem being played or their athletes wining a gold medal. If you want to communicate with them, in any meaningful way, you must be able to empathize with them. There is a process that will help you do just that.
Give Them Your Attention
First, you must focus on the person you’re talking with, giving them your total and undivided attention. The natural reaction when we’re talking with someone, especially about something where we disagree, is to be thinking about what we’re going to say next. We’re formulating our argument in our mind while they’re talking. This defeats the purpose of listening, in general, and empathy, in particular. Stop and really listen to what’s being said.
Keep An Open Mind
One of two things will happen if you listen with an open mind. You’ll either learn something that may influence your own position or you’ll learn something about the person you’re talking to that will help you understand them better. John Kenneth Galbraith once said that, “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof”. There is unsettling research that indicates it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to find people who are willing to consider even the most trusted facts to alter their position. Johnathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind, discusses this in detail.
Many people are uncomfortable with a pause in the conversation. They start to finish another person’s sentence or will take over the conversation. Many people think while they talk and use a pause to consider something that’s been said to formulate an opinion. Don’t become impatient with these pauses. Allow someone the time to talk at their own pace, not yours.
To truly find out how someone feels about a subject and why they feel that way, ask questions that are non threatening and designed to help them open up and speak freely. This is not the time to ask questions like a prosecutor. It’s the time to ask questions with child-like curiosity. Let the person know that you’re truly interested in what they have to say. This is also not the time to share how you feel about the subject. Your sole purpose is find out how someone feels and why they feel that way.
Repeat The Speaker’s Thoughts
There’s an old saying… “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant”. By repeating back or paraphrasing the Speaker’s thoughts to them, you make sure that you have understood what they meant to say. It also helps to validate the other person by letting them know that you’re really listening.
Listen For Facts And Key Words
Listen for words or phrases that may give you a hint to the speaker’s feelings and emotions on the subject. They may also be a clue to underlying concerns or perspectives that may be influencing their opinion that even they may not be aware of. I was having a discussion with an employee of a client about youth hockey programs. He was very animated and opinionated about how parents get too involved and interfere with the kids learning and enjoyment. It was difficult to figure out where his perspective came from. Then, while talking about the coaches of youth hockey, he used the word “we” once. Hearing that, I knew at once that he was speaking as a coach and was expressing his frustration with parents from that perspective. Watch body language, too, to see if the individual is giving you non-verbal clues that will contribute to your understanding of their perspective.
Never Criticize or Attack
When you’re listening to someone with empathy, you have to be very careful that the person doesn’t feel attacked or under any pressure. If they do, they will shut down and you will never find out how they feel. This is particularly true if there is a reporting relationship to you or someone you report to. The other reason for not attacking someone’s opinion is that you will have no chance in influencing that opinion if the person you’re trying to influence feels attacked. How willing are you to listen to someone after they have discounted your opinion by refusing to listen to you and not trying to understand your position?
Be careful, because you can attack someone’s opinion without even realizing it. The person you’re talking to states an opinion and you say, “Yes, but don’t you think that……… ” and offer an alternative for them to consider. That may not seem like an attack, because we’re so used to doing it. however, what you’re really saying to them is that, “I heard what you said but I don’t agree and I’m sure if you’ll consider this alternative, you’ll change your position”. That may be an appropriate question to ask at a different point in the discussion, but not now. When you’re trying to empathize with someone, you are in service of them in an effort to build rapport and understand reality from their point of view.
In conclusion, perhaps Abraham Lincoln put it best. “If you want to win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend…. Assume to dictate to his judgement, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself… You shall no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”
Until the next time.........