How to add more empathy into our conversations?
Feel like you’re experiencing a crisis of conversation? Let’s find ways to be more empathic in our exchanges. Discover the Empathy Circle.
I don’t know about you, but there’s something deeply stressful about talking with a room full of strangers, especially if they’re younger (I’m 58). And it’s even more daunting if they’re in the US. We just don’t know any longer which side of the coin anyone stands. Are you heads or tales? Do the eyes or the nose have it? But truthfully, how often do you reformulate what your friend or spouse is saying? Given how short we are on time, it’s hardly feasible to spend dear minutes repeating back what you hear from somebody else, much less having the presence of mind to actually capture accurately what they said. If you’ve not developed a peace with yourself, it’s highly likely you’ll derail and not be able to be present with the other. Your own inhibitions, dire convictions and/or weaknesses will prevent you from listening whole heartedly. Metaphorically, it’s time to smell the roses. Find the time. Make the time. As the infamous Arthur Sackler once said, “Time is a vicious dictator, inflexible, inexorable—and ultimately always the victor.”1
Three years ago, I wrote Heartificial Empathy that was largely a cathartic exercise in memory of Philippe, a wonderful friend and a lifelong adversary on the tennis court. The book was all about empathy and was stimulated by an awareness that I was far from perfect in my own level of empathy. I had spoken with Philippe many times in the weeks leading up to his death, but I clearly wasn’t sufficiently understanding. It was a painful recognition that I was below par. In the preface to the book, I never let on to the real reason of my writing. It felt too fresh. Too raw. In retrospect, I wish I had. But here I am, finally coming to grips with that weakness and laying it out in public. And I’m deeply grateful for the journey I’ve been and the individuals I’ve met and interviewed along the way. In a 2018 podcast interview I recorded with Marie Miyashiro, author of The Empathy Factor, I was blessed with one of those A-ha! moments. Marie made me aware of another important reason why we all need to have more empathy which is that empathy is at the heart of great conversation. And it’s especially true when trying to confront ideas in a civil manner. Rather than consider empathy as a way to “give in” to the other side or, more maliciously, to manipulate the other, empathy opens the way to understanding the other’s point of view. Thus, empathy gives us all the superpower to build bridges.
Back when I was a senior executive at L’Oréal, being an empathic leader was never a topic. As several bosses liked to remind me, it was more about commanding respect and imposing your will. “Minter, you must pound your fist on the table more often,” I was told. Perhaps I was sometimes a bit too consensual. But on balance, I was prone to practicing empathy and trying to adapt my style and communications according to the person I was addressing. Over the last few years, I feel that the topic of #empathy has become almost trendy. The number of new books and podcasts with the word empathy in the title or subtitle has markedly increased. I have had some twenty authors in my podcast on and around the topic of empathy. (See at the end of this post for that list). And it’s certainly been on the up and up in Google queries worldwide.
The funny thing is that, while there may be signs that more business leaders are reading about it, employees and clients are far from convinced that businesses have become more empathic. On the one hand, it’s true that empathy is a hard thing to measure. Inevitably, there is bound to be a gap between self-assessed empathy and being declared empathic by those on the receiving end.
Empathy – an all-in-one fix?
Empathy has the curious ability to be useful in so many domains. Studies repeatedly show how the quality of empathy is useful in fostering employee engagement, enhancing teamwork, increasing productivity, creativity, and customer centricity. As if that weren’t sufficient, it’s also a key component to improving mental health. As Belinda Parmar, head of The Empathy Business and whom I had as a guest on my podcast, has long been clamouring how empathy is a must-have for business. In a 2020 online survey I conducted with 1070 respondents, 88% believed that empathy could drive business results. Yet, it remains elusive for many business leaders, stressed for time and pressured for performance. While I’m certainly not advocating being empathic all the time with everyone, to create a more empathic culture requires daily attention. It requires setting aside the time to listen actively, to share emotions and, often, personal information in order to understand one another better.
Studies, research and resources that show empathy is important
The 2022 State of Workplace Empathy by Businessolver
Interview with Businessolver CEO, John Shanahan, “Creating an Intentional Culture That Drives Success”
Empathy is a force for innovation, flourishing and intent to stay – based on study by Catalyst, Leveraging Disruption for Equity
Four reasons why empathy is good for your business, for Entrepreneur, by Maria Ross, also a guest who’s been on my podcast.
A gap in empathy
Yet, many leaders struggle to be more empathic in their day to day, as detailed by Dr Bryan Robinson for this Forbes article, “New research shows why business leaders struggle with workplace empathy.” Employees systematically rate their organizations as being less empathic than their bosses would have them think they are. While the pandemic brought the issue of empathy front and center in light of the health issues, hardships and a general societal malaise, the post-pandemic era has already seen a rolling back of such empathy. The school of reality, with economic growth slowing, inflation and important geopolitical tensions, employees’ needs are shifting to concerns for job security and benefits over ‘nice-to-haves,’ such as hybrid work conditions. A 2022 Expectations at Work study by BCW (part of WPP) indicates that a certain “confidence across the different employee groups has been eroding, triggering a change in the core expectations and priorities that employees now seek from their employers.”
Empathy activists unite
Thanks to the research for my book, I came across many amazing individuals who had spent many years of their lives studying and/or promoting empathy as a prized skill for business leaders. Among these individuals, although I met them separately, were the co-founders and fellow empathy activists who developed a practice called the Empathy Circle, Lidewij Niezink and Edwin Rutsch. It was a discovery that was to radically shift my own level of empathy and to bring me to meet many new people in significantly deeper ways. Sometimes, it meant meeting old acquaintances and friends in a new and truly meaningful manner.
What’s an Empathy Circle?
In essence, an Empathy Circle is a structured dialogue with a group of people that prompts us to be more empathic and improve our listening skills. While these Empathy Circles can be done in person, I have only ever done them via Zoom. Typically, an Empathy Circle is programmed to last two hours. Online, I prefer to limit the number of participants to five, including the EC moderator. If you do them in person, you can get away with having more people, but inevitably the more people you have limits the airtime for each attendee. Having selected the people and a question to explore, there’s a specific process to follow. To start with, although I usually circulate a brief bio of all the participants, we start with a brief introduction of one another. I like to ask everyone to say something a bit personal. Then the EC proper begins, with a reminder of the question or subject to discuss. Each participant addresses his/her thoughts to a target person for five minutes. Over that time, the target person will listen actively and, with reasonable pauses by the speaker, reformulate without judgment what they’ve heard. If the reformulation is inaccurate or needs qualification, the speaker can course correct and/or elaborate as he/she sees fit. When the time is up at the end of five minutes, the speaker will conclude by saying that he/she feels heard – of course, assuming it’s true! If the reformulations include judgment (positive or negative), it is up to the moderator to gently remind the participants of the rules. It’s best to set the record straight as soon as it happens. At this point, the person who was doing the listening identifies the next target person and, for the following five minutes, speaks their piece. This process goes on until the 1h45 mark. For the last fifteen minutes, I always ask the participants to do a debrief. You can find a lot more about the Empathy Circle process here.
Connecting through an Empathy Circle
Having now led or attended well over 50 Empathy Circles over the last four years, I am evermore enthusiastic as to the power of this process. Even before the pandemic, the Empathy Circle provided a form of connection that has been deeply missing in our society. During the lockdowns, they were even more powerful. As Edwin Rutsch says (and I agree), the Empathy Circle is a formidable tool to help deal with contentious issues and conflict resolution. It can also be a fascinating way to explore and brainstorm difficult topics. Whenever the topic is tendentious, it’s important to establish upfront the protocol and gain agreement by all parties. The more difficult or conflictual the topic, the greater the need for the moderator to make sure that all the participants respect the process. The power of this structured dialogue is that every participant is obliged to listen far more than they speak. And they must do so most attentively when they are the target listener, to understand what the other person is saying and feeling. And here’s the trickiest part: not to attribute one’s own opinion. Secondly, everyone gets their turn to speak, albeit not in a prescribed order. In a world where no one seems interested to listen and everyone is pining to be heard, the Empathy Circle has a profoundly healing power. In my debriefs with participants in their first Empathy Circle, I will systematically hear feedback on three things:
How difficult it is to listen deeply (and/or a realization of their poor listening skills)
How unexpected were the twists and turns of the conversation
How they felt a special connection with the other participants who, only two hours previously, were total strangers.
Putting an Empathy Circle together
In my capacity as moderator and empathy activist, I’ve enjoyed putting together Empathy Circles with people in my network who don’t know one another. I’m always mindful to consider, much like the guests of our dinner parties, to have individuals who could find enjoyment from meeting the others. A couple of times I specifically organized to have only CEOs participate. You know, they’re the ones who are always so busy, authoritative, and often have larger egos. In both cases, the effect was the same. As a moderator and participant, it’s important to set the tone at the outset, so in my brief introduction, I will be sure to say something personal. The more intimate the revelation, the more likely it will encourage the others to follow suit. In the first hour, the participants are prone to deliver what they had come to say. In the second hour, the masks come down and the conversation becomes far more intertwined, where each is bouncing off the other’s statements. That’s when the magic usually happens. And that’s why I insist on the two hours.
Getting a good question to debate
As much as the Empathy Circle is a tool to flex one’s empathic muscle and enhance one’s listening skills, I am always keen that we discuss a useful topic where everyone is engaged. The key consideration is to have a question or topic in which everyone is invested and yet doesn’t have the answer. Much like the World Café sessions I have animated at conferences over the years, the central question must be beyond everyone’s immediate reach. In essence, by working together and applying a collective intelligence, we’ll end up with thoughts and/or solutions that we’d not have come up with alone. With individuals who are typically all involved in business, here are some examples of the questions we’ve discussed in past Empathy Circles:
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to DIALOGOS - Meaningful Conversation to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.