TeamBuild May 2017: Radical empathy

Recently, when I was working with a distinguished senior team, there was one individual that I didn’t like or trust. I knew this was not a good thing and called one my favorite mentors to talk about it.

“I know this isn’t a helpful attitude, especially as the facilitator of this team. I just don’t like him. I don’t trust him. What should I do?” I asked.

“I think you should practice radical empathy,” he answered.

I couldn’t help but smile. Of course. In Leadership on the Line, Heifetz and Linsky say, “keep the opposition close.” And part of me knew that, with this difficult person, instead of moving away from him, I had to engage with him. And so I did.

I met with him individually and talked with him by phone. What I found reminded me of what I often find — someone insecure, wanting to contribute, and to be heard. Someone I liked more than I had thought. Not only did I build a bridge to a potential foe, I also learned something important. He had previously been the head of this team and ran a strategic planning process – it was vital that I build on that and not look foolish for re-creating the wheel.

I also try to practice radical empathy as I facilitate meetings. While my instinct may be to turn away from someone who is a naysayer or recalcitrant or difficult, I try to remember to make sure their concerns are heard, give them responsibility, and talk to them at the break. Acknowledging their view can soften their stance and open them up to listening to others. If I’m working with flip charts, I note their issue, underline or circle it, and return to acknowledge their point when appropriate. By welcoming their different or difficult point of view, I sometimes disarm them and most importantly, get useful data.

I admit, it’s hard to do. So lately I’ve been reminding myself of this phrase, “radical empathy.” It makes me smile.

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