The Gift of Empathy

December 18th, 2014
Looking for a cheap but priceless gift?

Looking for a cheap but priceless gift?

While the Christmas holiday season is a time of joyous anticipation, fellowship, and spiritual renewal for many, it can also be an extremely stressful and trying time for others. If you’re one of those Grinches who can’t see past the aggressive commercialism, long lines, bad weather and annoying songs, perhaps you can do yourself and others a favor by boosting your skill at empathy.

Wait a minute—skill? How can empathy be a skill? Isn’t empathy a feeling you get when you identify with what other people are feeling? Isn’t it a trait that you get a certain amount of when you’re born? How can it be a skill?

Actually researchers have shown that empathy can be taught and improved. Even if you’re not feeling it, there are skills that you can employ to improve others’ perceptions of your empathy level—and actually foster the internal changes that will make you feel it. You actually can fake it ‘til you make it.

Why would you want to? If you’re already stressed out, why on earth would you want to start feeling others’ pain on top of yours?

The obvious answer is that it’s the right thing to do, but if you’re not feeling it, you’re not buying that one. So is there a practical reason for becoming more empathetic? Here are three:

  • Irritation and anger are definitely bad for you. But, as Mark Goulston says, “anger and empathy—like matter and antimatter—can’t exist in the same place at the same time. Let one in, and you have to let the other go.”[1]
  • If people around you feel valued and understood, their stress levels will go down, which helps you.
  • Having trouble knowing what to give? Empathy is a priceless gift you can give someone that costs you almost nothing.

So, how do you go about it? There are two general ways; you can adjust your mindset and/or your behavior.

Adjust your mindset:

When something happens or someone does something that gets under your skin, ask yourself, what’s really going on here? Did the other person purposely set out to attack me personally? Most likely, they did not. First, you never know what’s going on in someone’s life—they may have even more on their minds than you do. For a powerful reminder of this, watch just a minute or so of this video about empathy by the Cleveland Clinic. Goulston suggests giving yourself an empathy jolt: ask yourself, how would I feel if I were him right now?

Apply the same standards to them that you do to yourself. Remember the fundamental attribution error: when someone does something that irritates us, it’s a reflection on their character. When we do the same thing, it’s either an accident or was caused by circumstances.

Adjust your behavior:

Catch others doing something right. It’s easy to think everyone around you is crabby and discourteous, because you’re only going to notice evidence that supports your hypothesis. Make a game of scoring one point every time you see someone do something nice for others. (If you do something nice yourself, that’s not cheating, it’s a way to game the system so that everyone wins.)

Even if you’re not feeling particularly charitable towards the rest of the world, fake it. It will make others happy and because of embodied cognition, your mindset will tend to catch up with your behavior. You already know how to fake it, but in case you need some pointers, check out Helen Riess’s TED talk about practicing EMPATHY.

We all need an empathy boost once in a while, and what better time than the Christmas holidays to give others—and ourselves—that priceless gift?


[1] From one of my favorite books, Just Listen, by Mark Goulston, p. 126.

Christmas Book Recommendations

December 16th, 2014

Based mostly on my own reading over the past 12 months, here is a list of books that would make great gifts for the special someone who could use the gift of persuasiveness and personal effectiveness (even if the giftee is yourself):

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where and Why It Happens, by Benedict Carey.

In a rapidly changing world, personal success and well-being depends not only on being able to keep learning, but to get better at it—but much of what you learned about learning in school is wrong. I personally picked up a lot of good ideas from this book, and I put it first because it will help you get more out of the other books.

Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, by Ian Leslie.

I reviewed this book at length in an earlier post, but the thumbnail is that that there are three forms of curiosity, two of which are good for you and one which is bad. Empathic curiosity makes you dig deeper into understanding others, which is extremely useful in any persuasive communication context, and epistemic curiosity compels you to learn for learning’s sake. If you suffer from the bad form—diversive curiosity—this next book can help.

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload, by Daniel J. Levitin.

We put a lot of stuff into our brains every day, but taking out what you need when you need it is the real challenge. Levitin shows you how to organize yourself, your social life, and your business life to bring some sanity to your world and maybe even get more done.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century!, by Steven Pinker.

Pinker is an accomplished linguist who has turned his talents to popular writing, which is our gain. In this book, he takes on outmoded advice about writing and backs up his ideas with modern science. For example, you’ll be happy to know that it’s not a felony to end a sentence with a preposition. This book will help you sound like an intelligent, reasonable human being.

The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase, by Mark Forsyth.

Most business and personal communication works perfectly well if you stick to plain, short, direct language, but if you like to have fun with words, maybe show off a little now and then, and hope people will repeat what you said, study this book closely. I just reviewed this book at length, if you’d like to learn more.

The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman.

Many extremely competent women are held back in their careers because they either lack confidence or are reluctant to show it to the extent that men do. Kay and Shipman explain why this is so and what you can do about it. It should also be required reading for men in positions to decide who gets promoted to plum positions.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain.

If being a woman can hold you back in business, so can being too introverted, in a society that is biased in favor of extraverts. Give this book to an introvert so they can learn how to apply their strengths to succeed, or to an extravert to show them how to better appreciate the introverts around them.

Strategic Sales Presentations, by Jack Malcolm.

OK, I’m biased, but it’s my blog. This timeless classic will put money into the pocket of the salesperson in your life, and even if they don’t read the whole thing, it will look good on their shelf, so I recommend that you buy one for their home and one for their office.


What Are the Three Tritest Tropes in Titles?

December 11th, 2014

Since reading The Elements of Eloquence, I am seeing tropes everywhere. Unfortunately, most people seem to go for the low-hanging fruit (Boo, badly overused metaphor!), especially in the titles of blog posts.

Numbered lists are probably the most common, for three reasons:

  1. Someone did some research once and found that they lead to more click-throughs, so there’s at least a pseudo-scientific basis for this one.
  2. They give the impression of completeness.
  3. They promise a quick and easy read.

Alliteration is a cheap way to win one’s attention. It’s easy, and personally pleasing to peoples’ ears, even when it results in rotten writing.

Why do rhetorical questions get our attention? Is it because they spark curiosity? Do they exploit our continuous search for meaning in a chaotic world? Who knows?

Sales Discovery: Why You Need to Do More Exploring and Less Searching

December 8th, 2014
Seek too hard and you may not find

Seek too hard and you may not find

This morning, Mike Kunkle wrote an excellent article about sales discovery, which is something that sales professionals generally don’t do as well as they should. Mike gives solid actionable advice on how to improve the process, but there is an important distinction I would like to add.

There are two ways to go about the discovery process: you can search or you can explore. Each has its own strengths, but most salespeople do too much searching and not enough exploring.

I would argue that most salespeople go into a conversation with the intent not to explore, but to find. Exploring is truly open-ended: it’s a search for the actual truth, whether or not the truth actually leads to a sale. Finding is getting the answers you are looking for so that it leads to a sale.

Most salespeople don’t do exploring well because they’re not paid to find the truth; they’re paid to find customers.

The difference is that they know what they are looking for, so they craft their questions specifically to lead towards the answers they want. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but unless the truth contains a real need that they may be qualified to address, “searching” questions become patently obvious to the prospect and breed distrust. Even if there is a real need, impatience or lack of skill and subtlety can rush the process and generate resistance.

And if it’s true that your ultimate goal is to jointly create value in which both parties can share, too much of a laser focus can cause you to overlook unexpected opportunities. Indeed, many scientific discoveries came about when a scientist got a fully unexpected result and had the curiosity to pick up the new thread to see where it led. How many of those types of opportunities have you left on the table by ignoring those threads? As Churchill said, “Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on.”

The difference between exploring and searching, as I see it, is that exploration requires an open mind and a willingness to face up to unlooked-for and unexpected answers—those that might indicate to you and to the prospect that there is no current need for what you’re selling. Exploration requires a different mind-set than searching; it requires humility to recognize you don’t automatically have all the perfect answers; curiosity to ask the extra why; and courage to confront unwelcome answers.

Exploration is less about SPIN and more about humble inquiry, asking questions when you don’t already know the answer you want.

Exploration may be a less efficient and direct path to the sale you’re after, but when your counterpart senses that you’re honestly seeking understanding and not just another handle to grasp the sale, it fosters the trust, transparency and teamwork that leads to mutually profitable long term relationships. It’s the best way to jointly create and share new value.

The paradox is that the best way to get what you want is to be prepared to hear what you don’t.