The Power of Empathy: What We Don’t Know Won’t Help Us

young woman showing empathy


“I know I have to work for him,” complains a young leader. “He runs our company but he seems so judgmental. Whenever we talk he just looks at me levelly as if waiting for me just to go away. That’s a problem when I need him to approve the restructuring of our group.”

“What do you think is going on for him?” I ask.

“I don’t know.  He gets really animated when he talks shop with the project guys, but when he and I try to talk about what’s going on inside our organization, he has nothing to say.”


“Well, almost nothing. When I first described my new org chart, he made some lame comment like, ‘Well, aren’t you the aggressive one?’ What’s with that? I am a total team player!” responds the frustrated executive.

Clearly, there is a failure to communicate between this young leader and the senior leader. What is causing it is less clear. For the young leader to move her initiative forward, she will need to discover what lies beneath his resistance. To accomplish that is tough when you have someone you do not know and, it would appear on the surface, does not want you to know.

What to do?

From To Kill a Mockingbird comes the famous quote, “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”  It refers to empathy, the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings.

In the 21st Century, we have become rather short on empathy. Tales of escalating narcissism appear regularly in the press. Being real, much less vulnerable, is not widely embraced. At the same time, Brené Brown has sparked a whole movement focusing on that very thing. It is a concept that is attractive to many, at least in theory. In practice, it’s hard to achieve, particularly when being Donald Trump tough gets so much attention.

Even in the average business day, admitting things you do not know can be construed as weak and ineffective, however misguided the judgment. How else can you make progress toward new ideas and connections without diving into unexplored corridors?

So, what does the young leader do to connect with the senior executive? Here are three suggestions for how to convert what you don’t know into what you can find out, and win what you need.

1. Know your purpose:

What do you really need from this person? You do not have to be friends with him. However, if he owns critical political and decision-making power, know what actual decisions he has to make for you. Is it merely to approve programs or does he or she hold the keys to your career?

2. Know why rejecting behavior sets you off:

When someone behaves in a distant and unsupportive way, it is all too common to personalize it. Chances are high, however, that their reaction to you has nothing to do with your value or credibility. They may be having a bad day or the initiatives you are proposing may not be in an area of expertise and the person is uncomfortable revealing their ignorance. If it really is personal, you will know because something actually did occur between you that caused you both discomfort.

3. Allocate time to discovery:

Colombo, the police detective character played by Peter Falk, was maddeningly slow and methodical when he worked to track down the answer to a mystery. Yet, he also succeeded in uncovering what he needed to know.  Modern business does not embrace “slow” in any form. However, what is the whole mindfulness movement about but slowing down and looking? If it weren’t so rewarding, it would not have such pull in the corridors of companies from Google to Monsanto. The question is how to practice it within the metabolism of a business day. The best approach is to incorporate your detective work opportunistically. Some examples:

  • When in the room with the senior leader, take the time to observe that person’s behavior with you and with others. Does he or she appear to be more comfortable with driver types, favor a certain lieutenant or take notes and if so, of what?  What kind of conversations does the senior leader join and with how much enthusiasm? Where does he or she disengage or get upset?
  • After the meeting, follow up with questions. If there are trusted colleagues around who either were there or know this senior leader from other contexts, ask them for their experience of the leader. If they were at the meeting, it is a natural act to debrief with them on how they viewed the proceedings.
  • When next engaging with the senior leader, consider taking more behavioral risks. You might ask if you are receiving the right impression, “Is there a way you’d like me to think about this differently? Based on the way you are responding, you seem dissatisfied.” Even better, try humor. “I know organizational restructuring rivals going to the dentist, but do you have any reactions to this plan you’d like to share?”

Learning to understand what makes others tick will inform your strategies for successfully influencing others and lead to getting things done.

Julie Benezet is the author of The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None

 ©2016, Julie Benezet. All rights reserved.

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