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.