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How Empathy Can Be Your Secret Weapon

2023 April 2

When I first moved to Kyiv about 20 years ago, I met my friend Pavlo, who is from Belarus. Eventually our talk turned to that country’s leader, Alexander Lukashenko, and an incident in which he turned off the utilities at the US Ambassador’s residence, as well as those of other diplomats. It seemed totally outlandish and crazy to me.

“But he won,” Pavlo countered. I was incredulous, until he explained. “Lukashenko knows he’s a bastard and that the world will never accept him. In that situation all you can win is your freedom and that’s what he won.” It was a mode of thinking so outrageous and foreign to me that I could scarcely believe it.

Yet it opened my eyes and made me a more effective operator. We tend to think of empathy as an act of generosity, but it’s far more than that. Learning how to internalize diverse viewpoints is a skill we should learn not only because it helps make others more comfortable, but because it empowers us to successfully navigate an often complex and difficult world.

Identifying Shared Values 

We all have ideas we feel passionately about and, naturally, we want others to adopt them. The ideas we believe in make up an important facet of our identity, dignity and sense of self. For me, as an American living in post-communist countries, the ideas embedded in democratic institutions were important and it was difficult for me to see things another way.

My conversation with Pavlo opened my eyes. Where I saw America and “the west” as a more just society, people in other parts of the world saw it as a dominant force that restricted their freedom. My big insight was that I didn’t need to agree with a perspective to understand, internalize, and leverage it as a shared value.

For example, once I was able to understand that some people saw Americans as powerful—something akin to an invading force—I was able to shed the feelings of vulnerability that arose from being in a strange and foreign land and focus on the shared value of safety in my dealings with others.

A great strategy for identifying shared values is to listen closely to what your opposition is saying. People say and do things because they believe they will be effective. Once I was able to stop dismissing Lukashenko as a corrupt thug, I was able to identify the issues surrounding safety and dominance that could be useful to me.

Building Shared Purpose

Using empathy to identify shared values is a crucial first step, but doesn’t achieve anything by itself. To move things forward, we need to build a shared purpose. Consider a famous study called the Robbers Cave Experiment, which involved 22 boys of similar religious, racial and economic backgrounds invited to spend a few weeks at a summer camp.

In the first phase, they were separated into two groups of “Rattlers” and “Eagles” that had little contact with each other. As each group formed its own identity, they began to display hostility on the rare occasions when they were together. During the second phase, the two groups were given competitive tasks and tensions boiled over, with each group name calling, sabotaging each other’s efforts and violently attacking one another.

In the third phase, the researchers attempted to reduce tensions. At first, they merely brought them into friendly contact, with little effect. The boys just sneered at each other. However, when they were tricked into challenging tasks where they were forced to work together in order to be successful, the tenor changed quickly. By the end of the camp the two groups had fallen into a friendly camaraderie.

As Francis Fukuyama writes in his recent book, “Identity can be used to divide, but it can also be used to integrate,” which is exactly what I found in my years working is foreign cultures. Once I was able to leverage shared values to create a shared purpose and began engaging in shared actions, that purpose and those actions became part of a shared identity. Yes, I was still an American, with American values and perspectives, but I became their American.

Overcoming Conflict By Designing A Dilemma 

Unfortunately, building a shared purpose isn’t always possible. A simple truth is that humans build attachments to people, ideas and things. When those attachments are threatened, they will lash out. That’s why whenever we set out to make a significant impact, there will always be those who will work to undermine what we are trying to achieve in ways that are dishonest, underhanded and deceptive.

When that happens—and it always does eventually—we can get sucked into a conflict, which will likely take us off course and discredit what we’re trying to achieve. Yet, here too, developing empathy skills to identify shared values can be extremely helpful once we learn how to design a dilemma action, which puts the opponents into an impossible position.

Dilemma actions have been used for at least a century—famous examples include Gandhi’s Salt March, King’s Birmingham Campaign and Alice Paul’s Silent Sentinels—but more recently codified by the global activist, Srdja Popović. They are just as effective in an organizational context, using an opponent’s resistance against them.

One of the great things about dilemma actions is that you approach them exactly the same way you approach building allies—by identifying a shared purpose. Once you do that, you can design a constructive act rooted in that shared purpose that advances your agenda. Your opponent then has a choice: they can disrupt the act and violate the shared value or they can let it go forward and let change progress.

For example, I was once running a transformation project that was being impeded by a Sales Director hogging accounts. Although it was agreed that she would distribute her clients, she never got around to it, so I set up a meeting with a key account and one of our salespeople. When she tried to disrupt the meeting, she violated the shared value we had established, was dismissed from her position and everything fell into place after that.

Empathy Is Not Absolution

Empathy, as powerful as it can potentially be, is widely misunderstood. It is often paired with compassion in the context of creating a more beneficial workplace. That is, of course, a reasonable and worthy objective, but the one-dimensional use of the term is misleading and limits its value.

When seen only through the lens of making others more comfortable, empathy can seem like a “nice to have,” trait rather than a valuable competency and an important source of competitive advantage. It’s much easier to see the advantage of imposing your will, rather than internalizing the perspectives of others.

One thing I learned over many years living in foreign cultures is that it’s important to understand how people around you think, especially if you don’t agree with them and, as is sometimes the case, find their point of view morally reprehensible. In fact, learning more about how others think can make you a more effective leader, negotiator and manager.

Empathy is not absolution. You can internalize the ideas of others and still vehemently disagree. There is a reason that Special Forces are trained to understand the cultures in which they will operate and it isn’t because it makes them nicer people. It’s because it makes them more lethal operators.

It is only through empathy that we can understand motivations—for good or ill—and design effective strategies to build shared purpose or, if need be, design a dilemma for an opponent. To operate in an often difficult world, you need to understand your environment. That’s why building empathy skills can be like a secret weapon.


Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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Photo by Alex Robinson on Unsplash


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