Persuasive communication

Outside-In Thinking Times 3

The more threads, the better.

Outside-In thinking—taking the perspective of the other party—is the first of the four pillars of persuasive power, and it has figured prominently in this blog. Yet one can always learn more, and Daniel Goleman’s new book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, takes the idea even further. Understanding his “Empathy Triad” may help you become not only a better persuader but maybe even a better person as well.

Goleman’s empathy triad comprises three forms of attention: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and empathetic caring.

Cognitive empathy is the closest to what I call outside-in thinking. Essentially, it’s paying attention to the other person’s thought processes and emotions, of knowing what they’re thinking and feeling, and being able to incorporate that into your persuasive approach. Another term for it is perspective taking, which is the ability to see the situation from the point of view of another person. It’s a skill that may be unique to humans, and begins to develop around the time we are three years old and ends only when we attain positions of power.

Emotional empathy goes beyond simply being aware of what they are feeling, to being in tune with the other’s emotional state: you feel it yourself at least to a certain extent. In brain scan experiments, volunteers watching others undergo painful electric shocks show activation in the same brain areas, indicating that their minds are simulating the same experience.

Empathetic caring, the third level, is sometimes a missing ingredient, because it’s possible to know and feel what the other person is undergoing without caring enough to do something about it. For example, many doctors are well aware of what patients are feeling, but do not show a human concern for their condition. Interestingly, even when there is no difference in actual outcomes, those with a caring bedside manner are less likely to be sued for malpractice, and more likely to have patients follow their directions.

Let’s look at the benefits and dangers of each:

Cognitive empathy is extremely useful in sales, particularly in a complex sale that requires that you show a deep understanding of the client’s situation. Striving for and achieving it requires research, insightful questions, and close attention to the client’s words and body language in describing their situation. It works beyond sales; in any persuasive conversation the mere act of striving for it makes you more credible and sympathetic in the eyes of the other person, and increases the chances that they will open up and provide you with the reasons and the language that you can use to achieve your persuasive goal.

But the downside to cognitive empathy is that without feeling or caring it can easily become manipulative or awkward (remember the debate when Obama told Hillary Clinton she was “likeable enough”?). Indeed, Goleman tells us that successful sociopaths, such as swindlers and narcissistic leaders, succeed because they can be experts in understanding and manipulating other people. They can describe the other person’s emotions intellectually, but because they don’t feel them, their consciences are not constrained, and they see others only as instruments to get what they themselves want, making any persuasive goal acceptable and any tactic fair game.

So if being right is as important to you as being effective, you must balance outside-in thinking with outside-in feeling and caring. As a recent Harvard Business Review article puts it: “Warmth is the conduit of influence.”

How to achieve the right balance

Although Goleman does not call them this, I prefer to think of each type of empathy as head, gut, and heart. One would think that it’s best to have high levels of each type of empathy, but different situations call for different mixes. The best persuaders achieve the right balance of each depending on the situation. For example, a salesperson who is too focused on the intellectual dimension of the problem to be solved will overlook the little things that build long term trusting relationships; on the other hand, a surgeon who could not detach herself from the emergency room patient’s fear and pain would probably be too shaken to think straight. A presenter may be so focused on remembering his material that he neglects to notice that the audience has checked out.

How do you achieve the right balance of head, gut and heart?

Ironically, the best way to be good at outside-in thinking may be to begin with effective inside-out thinking. In other words, you need to be fully self-aware before you can be truly aware of others. Begin by examining your own reasons and motivations for the persuasive appeal you are making. Do you sincerely believe that it is in the other person’s best interest? If you were in their shoes, what would you do?

If your self-awareness tells you that you need to get better at feeling and caring, you can “fake it ‘til you make it.” This may sound really cynical, but researchers have found that teaching doctors to go through the motions even when you don’t feel like it—paying attention to the patient’s body language, facial expression and tone of voice—makes them more aware of them as people, and engages the second two legs of the empathy triad. During the conversation, monitor your own reading of the situation: can you sense what the other person is feeling at this stage of the interaction? Are you asking questions that elicit subjective information? Have you tried summarizing or paraphrasing what they are saying to ensure that you understand them, and that they know that you understand them?

It’s all about how you focus your attention. There is a rich stream of signals that flows between two people in a conversation, and we each have our own personal tendencies to selectively notice some of the stimuli and to ignore others; and the unconscious choices we make determine the quality, content and results of our dealings with other people. By allocating your attention appropriately to all three levels of the empathy triad you will ensure that you are persuading others to do the right thing in the right way.

Paying attention in this way is not only good ethics, it is good practice. Gaining agreement in this way will leave the other person better off and feeling good about their decision, which will lead to sustainable agreements, ongoing referrals, and long term trusting relationships.

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1 Comment
  • Hey, Jack,

    Thanks for writing this; I’m very happy to know that you are focusing on this topic. You are one of the few people in your field that I know of with such a strong commitment to clear thinking and civility (which, I think requires empathy, by the way) and I think you are thus hugely important to your field.

    Empathy is a large focus of mine, so here are a few of my thoughts (well, more than a few):

    1. This sentence strikes me as incredibly important:

    “It’s a skill that may be unique to humans, and begins to develop around the time we are three years old and ends only when we attain positions of power.”

    I think that the book This Town relates to your comment on power’s relationship to empathy and how power can create barriers to empathy (e.g., lack of access to thoughts and feelings of those who do not wield as much power, decreased motivation to empathize, etc.): http://www.amazon.com/This-Town-Parties-Funeral-Plus-Americas/dp/0399161309

    I think Thomas Jefferson spoke/wrote eloquently on this issue (and, if memory serves, this was one of the reasons he argued for de-centralized power in government — to protect the people from unempathic power). I think we’ve got to watch out for this barrier to empathy as we become more powerful and/or watch this carefully in the powerful who may be seeking to persuade us. Finally, because correlation does not equal causation, I might say that empathic development can become more challenging when we become more powerful (not that it necessarily has to end if we stay focused on it).

    2. Dr. Carl Rogers is considered one of the top empathy theorists and scientists ever, I think. I don’t think he’d call any of the three components listed here “empathy” on their own. His definition was (paraphrased): the ability to experience what another is experiencing as if one was the other (without losing the “as if” — or, the understanding that one is not the other). It’s been my experience that most who discuss empathy miss that the head, gut, and heart (as you say) must all be included in order for one to be considered truly empathic.

    My major critique of calling these constructs “three kinds of empathy” would be that it can confuse people (e.g., that they can believe themselves empathic using only their head — which, as you say, can lead to unempathic manipulation — or only their heart — which can lead them to unempathically conclude that they know what’s going on in another without thinking/talking with the other person in order getting confirmation of one’s intuition — both of which can be considered the opposite of empathy, actually). I think this point is absolutely critical; here’s a good resource on Rogers’ thoughts on empathy — I might call the three components “awarenesses” (or something like that) that ONLY result in actual empathy when they are combined: http://books.google.com/books/about/A_Way_of_Being.html?id=ymS0e1jZmtMC

    3. I’ve hear this sentiment a lot, but I think the “as if” aspect of Rogers’ definition of empathy actually takes care of these concerns:

    “For example, a salesperson who is too focused on the intellectual dimension of the problem to be solved will overlook the little things that build long term trusting relationships; on the other hand, a surgeon who could not detach herself from the emergency room patient’s fear and pain would probably be too shaken to think straight. A presenter may be so focused on remembering his material that he neglects to notice that the audience has checked out.”

    I think this relates to a subtle, but powerful point: If my mind, heart, and gut is engaged in experiencing the world as you are, but I never lose sight of the “as if” (i.e., your life is not mine), I think I can be extremely empathic and still do my job (and, Rogers thought, probably better than if I cannot do so). I can stay tuned in with you intellectually and emotionally (I call this other-empathy sometimes) while still staying tuned into what I’m trying to do (what I sometimes call self-empathy). I think it’s a huge point that is often overlooked when discussing empathy “limitations” — I think the limits are typically related to an understanding of empathy (e.g., that it must good boundaries in its definition or it may not be actual empathy) rather than on empathy itself.

    4. I’ve heard this sentiment quite a bit as well:

    “If your self-awareness tells you that you need to get better at feeling and caring, you can “fake it ‘til you make it.” This may sound really cynical, but researchers have found that teaching doctors to go through the motions even when you don’t feel like it—paying attention to the patient’s body language, facial expression and tone of voice—makes them more aware of them as people, and engages the second two legs of the empathy triad.”

    This seems to me to violate Rogers’ genuineness principle (he stated that when it came to optimal outcomes related to empathy, a genuine experience of empathy is key) — and, I think, perhaps unnecessarily. I think there could be a recommendation that gets to what you want to get to (improvement) without being fake.

    For example, to get people closer to a genuine experience of empathy, I’m thinking you could advise them to do any of the following instead of being “fake”: (a) find products and services to sell that they believe are genuinely better for people, (b) seek professional assistance on how to unblock barriers to genuine empathy (empathy training, therapy, more Malcolm blog articles on empathic persuasion, etc.), (c) seek out experiences that help them genuinely connect with more people (e.g., read about the population, go to places where they can hear what concerns the population, read biographies of people that they initially do not experience empathy for, read philosophers/religious leaders who reasoned that empathy is the only reasonable stance toward others, etc.).

    Genuine empathy is what we are going for here, I think — and I believe encouraging people to seek more genuineness may be more well-aligned with the mission than the fake it approach. At the very least, I might consider replacing fake it with “practice it” (with a clear understanding of how important it really is) until you feel it.

    5. I think this is great:

    “It’s all about how you focus your attention. By strengthening your attention to all three levels of the empathy triad you will ensure that you are persuading others to do the right thing in the right way. Paying attention in this way is not only good ethics, it is good practice. Gaining agreement in this way will leave the other person better off and feeling good about their decision, which will lead to sustainable agreements, long term trusting relationships, and ongoing referrals.”

    I think this video (link at the end of this paragraph) also points out a bunch of other positives in relation to empathy (e.g., helping self and others grow, our entire culture become more civilized and advanced, etc.) — I think it adds to your final paragraph to help drive home how important the topic can be to the individual, their clients, and the culture as a whole (much of the video seems to me to align with either science or reason): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7AWnfFRc7g Could be a powerful ending to the article.

    I hope long note seems valuable in some way, Jack! I’m very focused on helping people in this area and one of the reasons I am so enthusiastic about your work is that I get the sense that you don’t just care about sales — you care about selling things to people that will help them to think clearly and be more civilized (which, to me, is what “good business” — business that is truly good for people — is all about). Bravo, my good man!

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