Teaching Transactional People the Power of Empathy


Imagine this scenario: Your boss has just told you, "Bring me results, not explanations — and certainly not excuses."

Then your sales approach, or other solutions you've used that have always worked for you to get those results, don't work this time. The people you ask for help aren't able to, or they don't know what to do either.

Time is running out, and you're not getting closer to solving the problem. Then, consider that while it's OK for you to feel frustrated, you aren't allowed to show it in any way to anyone at work because of the existing code of conduct. You also can't show it at home because you know it will raise tensions in your family.

You go back to your boss, and they again say to you in no uncertain terms, "Just get those results. We're running out of time, and I am counting on you." (No doubt because someone is pressuring them about it.)

Your frustration turns to fear. You may even have some panicky feelings about whether you'll be able to come up with anything. But still, you're not allowed to show it, and you don't have the time to take a break to collect yourself or your thoughts.

You go home, and you do your best to handle it all, but then your spouse says something to you, and you verbally snap at them. I mean really snap. Snap so much that you can see them wince.

You try to take it back, but the damage is done. Your spouse yells at you and stomps out of the room.

Now, consider that if, instead of leaving the room, your spouse had said, "Wow, that was explosive, and I even think you've been holding back."

That would have opened the door to allow you to vent. After venting, you would start to feel calm and think more clearly. When you're not backed into a corner and pushed to your limit, you can think of options that you hadn't considered and people you could have contacted to help.

What just happened?

With the first reaction from a spouse, they reacted transactionally. You attacked them, and they attacked you back. That is a zero-sum game where nobody wins.

With the second reaction, that spouse responded with empathy and knew that if you were acting in this way, then something must have driven you to it. Knowing that, instead of reacting with anger, they invited you to talk through what was provoking you. Once you did that, you were able to calm down and get to what was going on beneath the surface.

How to Develop Empathy if You're Analytic

The first step in developing empathy is to realize that when you're trying to communicate with someone who is already anxious or nervous, their ability to listen and comprehend may be significantly constrained or even nonexistent. This might apply to a financial services client worried about their money when the market takes a dive, a legal client worried about getting into trouble with the law, someone working with unfamiliar technology, a customer or client worried about losing money, or a subordinate who is worried that they've disappointed or frustrated a superior.

The second step is realizing and calmly noticing (i.e., empathizing) that they seem tense about something and inviting them to talk about it. You can say, "I sense you may be feeling tense or upset about something that may be getting in the way of your ability to understand what we're talking about. Would you want to take a moment to gather your thoughts or tell me about what's going on so you can put it aside?"

If you're transactional-minded, you may think, "I can understand that those responses could happen at home, from a spouse, but not at work, from a colleague." Don't be so skeptical — those responses can definitely happen at work as well.

The lesson here is that attempting to teach highly transactional people the value of empathy will often not get through or it will be met with skepticism or with cynical eye-rolling. However, if you demonstrate the positive power of empathy through having them directly experience it as in the example above, they may be more open.

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