Empathy Opens Possibilities

Applications of empathy has been on my mind this week…Have you ever argued about the details of a project or situation, only to eventually realize you were missing the big picture? It’s easy to do. In fact, just last week I watched a distinguished group of leaders go through cycles of “not seeing the forest for the trees”, pulling back, asking the right questions, finding common ground, and ultimately focusing on their mission to move forward. 

Driving home from two days of strategic meeting facilitating with the above-mentioned executive team, I pondered the dynamics that helped them navigate uncomfortable conversations. I also analyzed what was happening with individuals, when things started shutting down.  Finally, I realized reaching for empathy is what brought them all “back to the table” into productive dialogue.

As I pondered, I remembered the Tale of the Three Blind Men. The story illustrates the value of seeking to understand others’ viewpoints (a/k/a empathy) really well:

Three blind men went to the circus and encountered a large beast. They were fascinated by its energy, each tentatively reaching out to determine what it could be. In turn, they explained what they felt.

“It is just like a large wall!” one man exclaimed.

“What are you talking about? You can’t reach around a wall! This is like a strong, mighty pillar!” the second one corrected.

“A pillar? This is thick, but very flexible! What kind of pillars have you touched before? This is like a magnificent snake!” the third proclaimed.

Each passionately argued his belief, unable to accept that it could be anything other than what he perceived it to be. What they didn’t realize is that each one was correct, but all three were wrong.

As an executive coach and workplace conflict resolution specialist, dramatically different viewpoints are a regular occurrence.

I listen to one version of a situation and think an issue seems pretty straight forward. Then I hear someone else describe it and my clarity blurs – sometimes their stories are so different I wonder if they are even talking about the same thing at all.

This is when the importance of recognizing and investigating the reality of different perspectives, and the impact they have on communication, becomes important. And, this is when demonstrated empathy has the power to turn conflict into possibilities.

As humans, we spend a lot of time and energy trying to convince others to agree on what we believe to be “reality”. Reality is complex though. It’s filled with diverse viewpoints, which individually could be equally correct, even when they appear contradictory on the surface. 

When conflict shows up between leaders, it takes emotional intelligence to get interested in the other’s perspective. More specifically it requires empathy, which is synonymous with being open to a shift in perspective. By definition, it is “the ability to consider the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another” real-time.

Although often overlooked as an important characteristic of leadership, it is empathy that opens the doors to finding common ground. Just like the other pillars of emotional intelligence, with intentional practice, empathy can be strengthened and become a great leadership tool.

Empathy builders:

  • Recognize others can (and often do) have different thoughts and feelings than you, on just about any subject.
  • Understand past experiences greatly influence the perception of current circumstances, and no one has the same experiences and circumstances as you.
  • Become genuinely curious about the perspective of others. This protects you from charging ahead with blinders on, while building collaborative, open-communication.

Remember those three blind men at the circus? Eventually, the ringmaster came along and heard them arguing. At first, he could not understand what their battle was about, so he listened carefully as they fervently argued their perspectives. When he realized the cause of their disagreements, he calmly interrupted the mayhem and advised:

 “All three of you are correct in what you are saying, but have formed your opinions from very different vantage points.  This beautiful beast stands on thick, stable legs, like great pillars; its trunk is curling and flexible, quite similar to a magnificent snake; and its body, vast and hard like a wall.  Indeed, it is all of these things in part, but it is always an elephant in whole.”

To wrap this up, leaders, remember disputing parties (including you) can be blinded by personal perspectives. A little empathy, with an actively curious mindset, can resolve conflict and make the complex simple. There will be different perspectives – that’s a good thing! And, seeking to understand, while focusing on the big picture, will unite. You may be holding the trunk and your peer a leg, but you’re both still hanging onto an elephant! 😉

Contact us to learn more about working through conflict resolution with your team.

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