Some time ago I was working with an individual; we will call him Fred. Fred was the kind of guy on paper that seemed like a great hire for any organization. He was driven, smart, skilled, worked hard, and would often help others. Fred seemed like the ideal employee. Yet, a curious phenomenon followed Fred wherever he worked. Unexplained conflict. Unexplained because it just didn’t make sense with Fred’s personality. He seemed thoughtful and capable of working well with others. But often within his departments, growing tempests of conflict would consume more and more of the teams’ focus. The leaders of these teams found themselves spending more time responding to the swirl around Fred and less time focused on the projects that needed to be done. That’s when I was asked to get involved and help work with Fred. Enter the conflict consultant.
When I first met with Fred my initial impression was one of appreciation. Here seemed a likeable, thoughtful, and driven guy. But the more we talked, the more I noticed a different reality. While Fred was thoughtful that thoughtfulness didn’t seem to extend to others. Now, don’t misunderstand. I could tell that Fred cared about others. I could tell that he wanted to see the organization thrive. However, he seemed unable to extend that care to understand the perspective of others. He struggled to place himself in other people’s shoes. He was failing to practice intentional empathy and it was causing havoc with the other people on his team.
Just to be clear, when I talk about intentional empathy, I am not talking about sympathy. Sympathy is when I enter into and share someone else’s emotion. That’s why we send sympathy cards instead of empathy cards when someone experiences a loss. We are entering the emotion the other person is feeling and we want to express that sympathy to them.
Intentional empathy is to step toward another person to understand or imagine what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes. It’s the ability to understand another person’s feelings without entering that feeling ourselves. It’s the intentionality of building a bridge to another person so that together we can accomplish more. In the workplace, it’s the ability to visualize what another team member is dealing with and work to overcome impediments together.
That was Fred’s problem. While Fred could accomplish much on his own, he struggled with intentional empathy. And because he couldn’t understand the other person’s perspective, his action caused miscommunication, misunderstandings, and even outright conflict. In working with Fred, he started to see the conflict he was causing and the impact his lack of intentional empathy was having on the organization. In time, Fred went from being a problem for the organization to becoming a superstar that worked hard to build bridges with others and thereby helping everyone to succeed.
The story of Fred is real and not unique. I could switch out the name for Fred with Susan, Holly, or Mike. There are many people like him. They mean well, but they need help with practicing intentional empathy. Maybe this describes somebody you work with or somebody on your team. I would be honored to help your team or organization learn how to practice intentional empathy and be far more productive together. Give me a call at 402-802-3094 or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time,