In each of our last two newsletters, we featured a short
article describing a development tip, something that seems
very simple but can substantially improve communication and
your interpersonal skills. In the first article we discussed
the potential damage done by the word “but”.
In the second, we described the antithesis of effective listening;
something we called “highjacking”. In this third
article in the series we'll discuss empathy and it's nemesis,
something we call the "blame game."
Several years ago, I came home from work to find my wife
in a bit of a state. I asked her what happened to upset her,
and she explained that she'd had a terrible day in general.
But to cap it off her car had broken down in the middle of
the downtown core at the beginning of rush hour and she had
to sit in a stalled car, in bumper to bumper traffic for
an hour until the automobile association came to her rescue.
My response to her plight probably ranked as the worst possible
as I turned to her and said, "I told you to have the
car serviced last week."
Whenever I tell this story
I'm greeted by many "how could you be so dumb" exclamations.
However, as serious a gaff as it was, I'll bet that all of
us have been guilty of similar, if perhaps less destructive,
faux pas. Let's look at the dynamics of this particular example
to see what we can learn.
Being male, an ex-manager and longtime
management consultant, I, like many of similar gender and
background, had developed a belief that when someone described
a problem, they were expecting me to provide a solution.
Moreover, I believed that it was my job to provide a solution,
and that I was somehow deficient if I couldn't. As a result,
I'd be a little frustrated if I couldn't come up with an
instant solution and often, as in this case, say something
entirely inappropriate. Can you think of times when you've
been guilty of this?
Here are a couple of examples:
Statement: "I think I'm
catching a cold."
Response: "I told you not to
go out without a sweater!"
Statement: "I don't
think I did very well at that interview"
would have done better if you'd spent more time preparing."
got caught in the traffic and was late for work again today." Response: "You
should leave a few minutes earlier, I always do!"
get the idea! Someone comes to you with a problem and you
tell them it's their own fault. We call this the "blame
game". And as you can imagine, it does very little to
help the individual with the problem or to enhance a relationship.
In fact, playing the blame game is a great way to ensure
that people don't come to you to discuss problems.
Don't Blame. Empathize:
So what should you do if someone comes
to you with a problem and you don't know the solution? Well,
the first thing you must realize is that quite often they aren't
expecting you to come up with a solution. Think about it! In
all the examples given, the unfortunate event has already happened.
There is no solution. Why then is the person telling you about
it? What do they want from you? You probably know the answer;
they are looking for empathy. All that's required is a simple
empathetic statement that shows you understand how they feel
and agree it's okay to feel that way. Statements like "That
must be really difficult for you.", "I can see that's
really worrying you." or "I can see that your finding
it very frustrating" are often the most useful thing you
can provide, and believe it or not, they can do wonders for
Of course there will be times when the person
is looking for advice. In these cases the basic rule remains
intact. You are not expected to have solutions to all problems.
In these cases, you should still empathize, and then go on
to help the individual explore the issue and perhaps find a
solution simply by using you as a sounding board. solutions
are usually far more successful if individuals finds them for
The Most Difficult Communication Skill?
Of all the communications
skills I've discussed with managers, empathy is the one with
which most have struggled. Many can't believe it will help.
Others simply can't shed the habit of jumping directly to giving
advice or suggesting a solution. For these people I have two
pieces of advice. The first is to persevere. It won't happen
overnight. I once had a senior manager who in the workshop
setting just couldn't empathize. He automatically jumped to
a solution. I met him a few months later and he ran up to me
and said with some excitement, "Bob, I just had my performance
review and guess what my boss said? She said I was becoming
more empathetic." The second piece of advice is more of
a fall-back position. If you, like Mr. Spock on Star Trek,
really can't show empathy (the empathy part of your brain doesn't
exist), then it's a shame but don't worry; at the very least
you can build relationships by refusing to play the blame game.
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