TOM #12: How to level up your leadership

Posted on: August 14, 2022

Leading with empathy has been getting a lot of press. For good reason. It works.

But I’ve yet to read an article that’s actionable. At best, they offer obvious suggestions like “be open and transparent”, “be a good listener”, or “show genuine interest”.

🙄😑 C’mon!! That’s about as enlightening and useful as “delight your customers.” 

This issue discusses specific concepts and tools that will help you enhance your empathy skills so you can lead more effectively.

Part 1 explains how humans navigate the world from their own maps of it and introduces the most powerful type of empathy.

Part 2 provides questions you can use to elicit information about another person’s map and 10x your empathy skills.

Part 1. How empathy works.

Have you noticed that not everyone responds the same way you do in the same situation? Consider the following scenario:

 Imagine this month’s sales are up 10% over last month and annual revenue is steadily tracking 15% above planned/target revenue. What are you experiencing in response to this situation?

  • What are you thinking or saying to yourself? (e.g. f*#k yeah!, oh no!, I need to call [__])
  • What are you feeling/sensing? (e.g. thrilled? relieved? panicked? feel like you’ve lost your breath? or like skipping down the hall?
  • What are you doing? (e.g. high fiving yourself? double-checking the numbers?)
  • What else are you noticing in your experience of this scenario?

Your brain uses your individual map to navigate your life.

Whatever you’re thinking, feeling, or doing in response to this situation, I guarantee it’s unique to you. Perhaps not what you’re feeling or the actions you take next, but the exact reasons you’re feeling that way or why you’re doing those things are unique to you.

Each of us has a unique model, or map, of the world through which we experience and make meaning of everything that happens in our lives. It’s our own personal version of reality, based on our conditioning and experience. 

Many aspects of your map are out of your conscious awareness, but they still determine how you perceive the world and what choices you have available in any given situation.

When you are with other people, it’s useful to remember that there are as many maps of reality being used to interpret what’s happening in the moment as there are people in the room. 🤯

Empathy 101

Although empathy (emotionally understanding another person) is a useful tool for leading your company, I contend it's only as good as your capacity to locate and understand other people’s maps.

There are 3 types of empathy:

  • Emotional: desire to feel
  • Cognitive: desire to understand
  • Compassionate: desire to help and support

By definition, when I empathize with you about this better-than-projected sales situation, I connect with you on an emotional level (emotional empathy). I get an understanding of your perspective (cognitive empathy), and offer to provide support (compassionate empathy).

In order to do that well, I need to have built sufficient trust in our relationship for you to honestly share what you’re experiencing. How to build trust might be a topic for a future issue, but for now let’s break down what these types of empathy entail.

Emotional Empathy: to feel someone else’s experience

All humans can sense the feelings of other humans. It’s a built-in capacity essential to survival for a social species like ours. Some of us are conditioned to be more empathetic than others based on our lived experiences and influences, but all of us can learn to notice and interpret the physiological indications of different emotions in other people. No doubt you have your parents’, significant other’s, and close friends’ emotional “signals” sorted. 

  • You know the difference between a forced smile and a sincere smile.
  • You can sense confusion, reluctance, and hope in others.
  • You know how your mom’s behavior when she’s frustrated differs from your business partner’s.

But even without these clues, you can directly ask someone how they’re feeling and feel with them.

When you learn that your sales manager’s beloved uncle passed, you can empathize with her grief. Perhaps not because you’ve lost an uncle, but because you’ve lost someone or something really precious to you and are familiar with feelings that go with that sort of loss.

Cognitive Empathy: to understand someone else’s experience

In order to understand someone else’s experience, you often seek to relate with their perspective.

We typically find it easier to cognitively empathize with people who have similar experiences, because the context is familiar. We know what it’s like to be the new person at work. We know what it’s like to be nervous, because so much is riding on the outcome of a meeting. We know what it’s like to make a mistake. 

Compassionate Empathy: to help and support someone else going through an experience

Once you have an understanding of the person’s experience, you’re better able to support them.

You’re likely to offer what you’d find helpful in this situation based on your own map. This is a nice thing to do, but it’s not all that kind since it may be that what you think would be helpful is not helpful according to the other person's map.

Pro tip: it's better to ask, “How can I help?” or “What support do you need?” so they can share what they’d find helpful. And it's more powerful when you inquire about their request using questions in Part 2, e.g. "What will having that do for you?".

How to uplevel your empathy.

Empathy creates an emotionally-based connection between you and someone else, or what I call an “I feel you” level of connection.

The most powerful form of empathy involves you experiencing the world from the other person’s map. This is an “I get you” level of connection. 

It’s often not until someone else visits our map that we become conscious of what’s on them! 

As you inquire into other peoples’ experience using the questions in Part 2, you’ll help them get in better rapport with their own map and deepen the connection they have with themselves. This is unbelievably powerful.

When you’re with them on their map, you’re able to notice things that they haven’t (or can’t) yet. And you can share what you’ve noticed in a way that the other person can actually receive it, because you've established that “I get you” level of connection.

Without this deeper level of connection, any feedback or advice you offer is more likely to be interpreted as criticism, unhelpful, or wrong.

Curious about how to do this? Keep reading.

Part 2. How to use words to get on their map

If you tell me that you’re frustrated, I can feel with/understand/support you by referencing my own map of frustration. This is conventional empathy. It works.

But when I learn more about how frustration works for you, what specifically has you feeling frustrated, and what you’d like, if anything, right now…I can offer you more than empathy. I can offer you the experience of someone noticing, appreciating, and standing with you on your map. This is powerful empathy. It works better.

Using language to map the territory.

Typically when we describe things, our language isn’t as precise as we believe it to be.

We all communicate from our own maps where words have very specific meaning and information has been filtered…all while assuming that the words we use have the same meaning for the other person, that they noticed the same things, and that they came to the same conclusions. 😬

We know what it's like to describe something to someone and sense they just don't get it, even if they're trying to.

Questions will help you avoid giving the people in your company that sense that you don't get it.

We touched on using open-ended questions to uncover the specific meanings of the words people use in TOM Issue #8. Questions like:

  • What do you mean by "world class"?
  • How would customers describe their experience of "amazing service"?
  • Could you give me an example of what you mean by "supported"?

You can use this exact approach to understand what a person is experiencing and how they’re interpreting it.

Questions can also help elicit information that’s been filtered out or distorted and uncover how the other person makes meaning about it all. I’ve provided a few examples of questions for you to try. But please be gentle.

Empathy is most in demand in situations involving intense emotion, so be mindful of the tone and inflection of your voice. 

You can soften these questions with preambles like “I am wondering…”, “Can you give me an example of…”, “Can you tell me…” and a sincere “Thank you” after receiving answers.

Seriously. Say "Thank you." This simple two-word phrase really helps humans feel safer about sharing their maps with other people.

Questions to help you get on someone's map

There are countless questions to use. These are among my favorites:

  • (According to/by) what/whom, specifically? -or- How so?
  • What lets you know that [_]? -or- How do/will you know that [_]?
  • What would happen if you (did)n’t?
  • What is that like for you?
  • What would you like to have happen?
  • How will you know when you have it?
  • What will having that do for you? -or- What happens when [that happens]?
  • What are you thinking/feeling?

How to use these questions

Here are a few examples of statements someone might make in response to our example scenario, and how you might use these questions to learn more about their map, e.g. what’s important to them and why, what information their brain deleted, distorted, or generalized, and what they believe is true about themselves and their situation. (Extra credit if you try using these questions on your own experience of the scenario!)

These numbers are bad.

  • According to whom?
  • How do you know that they’re bad?
  • Bad for whom?
  • What are you thinking?

I’m thrilled.

  • By what/whom, specifically?
  • What lets you know to be thrilled?
  • What is that like for you?
  • What are you feeling?

We have to keep this going.

  • How would you like to keep this going?
  • Keep what going, specifically?
  • How will you know when it’s going the way you would like?
  • What happens when you keep this going?

This trend is unsustainable.

  • What, specifically, is unsustainable?
  • How so?
  • What lets you know this is unsustainable?
  • What would you like to have happen?

I have to figure out why this is happening.

  • According to whom?
  • What, specifically?
  • What would happen if you didn’t?
  • How do you know that you have to?

I can't tell them about this.

  • Who, specifically?
  • What would happen if you did?
  • What lets you know that you can’t?
  • According to whom?

I can’t catch my breath.

  • What is that like for you?
  • What lets you know to lose your breath? (admittedly, the syntax is weird but what this question elicits is fascinating.)
  • What are you thinking (...or a softer version…what’s going through your mind right now)?
  • What would you like to have happen?

Have fun with these questions. They’re useful in every relationship. And they’re fundamental to you up-leveling your leadership.

Let me know how it goes!

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