This One Word Ruins Empathy
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Empathy is, in essence, seeing the world or a situation from another person’s viewpoint. In Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, the moral guide, defines empathy for his daughter by saying, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  As simple as that sounds, however, in practice empathy is actually a bit tricky.

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Testing Your Empathy

Imagine you’re talking with a friend whose employer is going through tough financial times and layoffs. Your friend tells you: “I’m not sure I see any future in this industry.” You respond by saying, “I hear you, but you’re going to make it through this.”

This is an actual question from the quiz “Do You Know How To Listen With Empathy?” And based on thousands of responses, about a third of people think that is empathic. But they’re wrong.

Our friend disclosed their feelings of anxiety and doubt, and while we said “I hear you,” we also instantly told them that they shouldn’t feel troubled. We conveyed that sentiment when we used the word “but.”

The word “but” tells others, “I’m setting aside everything you just said so that, instead of talking about your issues, you can focus on what I have to say.”

During a client study, I observed a CEO for a few days. One of the measures we tracked was how often he said the word “but” during executive team meetings. His executives would offer an idea to improve efficiency or customer service or whatever, and he would routinely say something like, “That’s not a bad idea, but…” or, “Yes, but…” During one meeting, he literally said that word more than 50 times (to be honest, I stopped counting at 50).

Each time he said “but,” the energy went out of the room. And by the time that meeting was over, the CEO was the only person still speaking.

Stop Talking

How can you train leaders to be more empathic and respond more constructively? Start by teaching them that, when they’re listening to others, after they say the words “I hear you,” stop talking. Teach them that they can’t say “but,” they shouldn’t keep talking, they should just say “I hear you” and cover their mouth.

The word “but” forces us out of listening mode and into talking mode. As soon as we say that word, we’re delivering some reason why the other person’s thoughts are wrong and what they should be doing instead. And that’s the opposite of empathy; it’s the antithesis of considering things from another person’s point of view.

Ironically, when you’re teaching empathy to your company’s leaders, you shouldn’t burden them with detailed scripts. Empathy is more about not saying things than it is about saying specific words. Empathy requires sitting with what the other person just said, considering their thoughts and feelings without immediately trying to figure out what to say next. Empathy takes practice, but once mastered, it’s one of the most powerful tools a leader has.

The Power Of Empathy (Data)

In our study, The State Of Leadership Development, we discovered that only 26% of people say that when they share their work problems with their leader, the leader always responds constructively.

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Meanwhile, if someone says their leader always responds constructively when they share their work problems, they’re about 12 times more likely to recommend the company as a great employer.

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Another Cool Empathy Technique

An important study on empathy and perspective-taking comes from a team of researchers at UCLA. Subjects were asked to write an essay describing a time a boss had treated them unfairly. Believing that another person was reading their essay (it was really just the researchers), one group of subjects was told that the reader said, “I tried to take their perspective, but I just couldn’t put myself in their shoes.”

The other group was told the reader said, “I tried to take their perspective, and I could really put myself in their shoes.” When people heard that the reader had successfully taken their perspective, they liked that person 19% more. And they felt 78% more empathy towards them.

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If you’re wondering whether any of this led to tangible benefits, all subjects were told that they would be playing a game with the reader. They were informed that whoever won the game would be entered into a drawing to win money and that the person who went first in the game had the best chance of winning. The researchers then offered the subjects the choice of whether they wanted to go first (and be more likely to win money) or give up their turn to the reader (and be less likely to win money). The subjects who were told that the reader successfully took their perspective were 59% more likely to give up their turn (and cost themselves a better chance of winning money)! And all because they believed that reader took their perspective.

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