6 posts categorized "Trust"

October 29, 2015

What’s the difference between Empathy and Sympathy, and why has Sympathy got such a bad name?

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By John Ford

Have you ever wondered about the difference between empathy and sympathy?

And if you have, why sympathy has got such a bad name?

I addressed these very questions in the recent pilot of my online course that focused on Challenging Workplace Relationships, but was prompted to write this after watching a short online video  narrated by Dr. Brené Brown.

In the video Dr Brown says that empathy fuels connection and sympathy drives disconnection. To empathize, she says, we must 'internalize the feelings of another'.

In the examples she gives she suggests that we sympathize when we avoid acknowledging others difficult feelings and also when we minimize the experience of another, such as when we ‘silver-line’ with expressions like, “at least you have a job,” after hearing that the person was demoted.

I agree that these last two practices (avoidance and minimizing) are not empathetic, but I am not sure that they are what sympathy is about. Or indeed the real reasons for sympathy’s bad name.

As is often the case, words have numerous meanings. Sympathy’s Latin roots point to ‘similar feelings’ (sympathia and pathos).

However, the primary sense in most modern dictionaries suggest that sympathy means “pity or sorrow for someone’s misfortune.”

Sympathy as pity is dis-empowering and fuels disconnection. Comments like “I don’t want your sympathy” confirm this.

We want to be allowed to feel our feelings, rather than be rescued by the sympathizer who can never actually feel for us!

I agree that this sense is unfortunate and I suspect a reason for sympathy’s bad name.

But sympathy can also refer to the original Latin meaning and our capacity to recognize a common feeling. We sense that the other person may be feeling something similar to what we have previously experienced and sympathize.
As the listener, if we express our sympathy we may say “I was also ‘gutted’ when my team lost!”

The apparent danger is that unless we are careful we shift the focus away from the other. Now it’s about me and my team!

That’s another reason for its bad name.

So what then is empathy, and how is it different?

Empathy is our capacity to sense and understand what another is feeling from their – nor our – point of view.

This to me is vital. The focus is on them and how they make sense of their feelings.

So while I listen to my English friend bemoan their loss in the rugby world cup, I can sympathize as suggested above as I know what it feels like to lose.

But I can also empathize.

And when I do the shift is apparent. “I imagine you were gutted when your team lost! Especially as hosts. Must really hurt!”

As is suggested by Paul Bellet and Michael Maloney, our perspective becomes superfluous, certainly secondary to that of the speaker:

“Empathy is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person's frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another's shoes.”

At best my frame of reference and knowledge of rugby can help me to understand what my friend is feeling (sympathy), but empathy lies in my ultimate ability to demonstrate to my friend that I understand him and his woes.

Empathy builds connection, and is based on authentic attention to the other.

Sympathy can move us toward, but is not the same as empathy.

In the same way that avoidance and minimization are neither sympathetic nor empathetic.

Much ado about nothing?

Not so sure. Words matter.

Sympathy has its place, but there are dangers.

Which is why for life’s challenges,

I prefer empathy!

July 03, 2015

What exactly is a challenging relationship?

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“Sometimes people behave badly on purpose, but often we just lose touch with who we are.” Sharon Salzberg

The question of how best to deal with relationship challenges in our life is not new!

And as Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness at Work, notes; ‘bad behavior’ can be as a result of intentional malice but most often is not.

When we perceive ourselves to be on the receiving end of what we label as ‘bad’ or challenging behavior, we are often judgmental of both the behavior and the motive (intent) of the other.

It is not uncommon for there to be blame.

And it is also not uncommon for us to also lose touch with who we are.

Just as much as the other who acted ‘badly’ may have lost touch with themselves.

That seems to be the difficulty. That as much as we want to control our external world to secure inner peace we find that there is much going on within us that is also part of the challenging mix!

So then, what exactly is a challenging relationship?

Very simply, a challenging relationship is one that you have concluded is challenging!

In other words the test is subjective and very personal.

It means that your difficult person may be liked by many. You may or may not be the only one bothered. And, you may be shocked to find that others – using this same subjective test - find you challenging at times!

This subjective approach is intentional. It avoids ‘typing’ and excessive labeling in which the identification of qualities justify a diagnosis or ‘type’.

See, for example, the book “How People Tick: A Guide to Over 50 Types of Difficult People and How to Handle Them” by Mike Leibling. How anyone can remember all the 50 different types of difficult people or indeed what to do for each is beyond me.

At the end of the day, you will know if you are at peace or not. And if your perception is that the relationship is in any way;

  • Threatening not safe
  • Negative not positive
  • Difficult not easy
  • Defensive not open
  • Hostile not friendly
  • Confusing not clear
  • Draining not energizing
  • Toxic not healthy

Then you have a challenging relationship!

Now, I hasten to add that this conclusion does not entitle you to blame or do any of the other things that will make the situation worse.

But at least you won’t get stuck arguing about whether the behavior or attitude meets the definition of challenging behavior. Or which type it is! Or what to do assuming you have the correct type!

There are 10 things that I have identified that are guaranteed to make things worse. One is labelling and typing.

Another is blame!

When things turn out differently to what we hoped and we are disappointed and even angry because our needs are not being met, we often blame the proverbial other for what went wrong.

The benefit is that we may get sympathy and care. Sometimes shared outrage! And as long as the focus of blame is more external on the other or the environment, we can avoid our own feelings of pain and responsibility. Remember, our part in the challenging mix!

When we blame we make a judgment and hold the other person responsible for a situation from the past based on our perception and interpretation of the facts. As the authors of Difficult Conversations (Stone, Patton, Heen) say, “blame is about judging and looking backwards.”

Blame elicits defensiveness. It reduces the likelihood of learning about what is really causing the difficulty or from doing anything helpful about it.

A blame conversation is not the only conversation humans can have when things go wrong. I will always be grateful to Stone, Patton and Heen who revealed a worthy process alternative: a contribution conversation.

“A contribution conversation is about understanding and looks forward.”

Instead of asking whose fault is it, we openly ask how we each contributed to the situation in question:

What is my contribution to the situation?

What did we each do?

What can we learn?

Instead of defensiveness and concealment that prevents learning when we take the blame route, we discover through our candid revealing that we can learn from our individual and collective mistakes.

Here’s how the two approaches look side to side. Where the blame cycle grows and leads to more of the same challenge, the contribution conversation is balancing and reduces the problem.

Blame

We all experience challenging relationships and as the wise Sharon Salzberg cautions - most of the time it is from good folk, like you and me, losing touch with who we really are.

How positive do we need to be in our relationships?

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According to evidence based psychologist, John Gottman, “the ratio of positive to negative affect during conflict in stable relationships is 5:1; in couples headed for divorce, it is 0.8:1!” 

As Gottman points out, this does not require that we declare war on negative emotions.

All emotions have value when we view them as sources of decision making information to navigate life. In fact, without them, we would be rudderless! 

Take anger, as an example of a negative emotion. 

Anger arises when someone or something is interfering with the attainment of our actual or expected needs. There is a sense of being powerless about the situation. It burns a lot of energy and is ultimately tiring. There is a danger of impulsive and premature decisions.

Importantly, emotions are not the same as the behavior that follows. Slamming the door, shouting and acting out is the behavior. Not the emotion! 

These graphics give us a window into what is occurring. In the healthy couple on the left we see that the trend is generally upward despite moments of rupture and contraction. On the right, the trend reflects the downward spiral of poorly managed conflict.
 
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One practical application of this insight (where I have had great success) is with email. As research by Kristin Byron, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2005, shows, regardless of the sender’s intention, recipients interpret the impact of emails to be:

• Neutral when they are positive
• Negative when they are neutral

I was coaching a client recently. He told me that he had just received an email from his boss, and needed to respond. His concern about what he was going to say was preventing him from focusing, so I asked if he’d like to draft his reply during our session. 

He said yes, and I gave him a moment to write something out. We then took a look together and I asked him to indicate – sentence by sentence – whether his boss would perceive the statement as positive, negative or neutral. His score: 5 negative, 2 neutral and 2 positive sentences!

As a result of this review, his changes and additions, we were able to significantly shift the tone and tenor of the email from negative to positive. We removed ‘unnecessary story’, negative leaks, and outright threats while also adding more positive statements. 

We didn’t get to the gold standard of 5:1 and his score after our process was 3 negative, 4 neutral and 4 positive sentences. Still way better!

He sent it, and we got back to focus on our session goals. And here is the best part: before the session ended he had received a positive reply back from his boss. The relief was palpable.

And now he was struggling to focus because he was so happy!

Challenging relationship are a reality. We all have them. And there are things that we can do to change the quality of our experience as we navigate our challenging relationships.

So the next time you have to send out an important email, take a moment to review each sentence and determine your score. See what you can do to clean up your message and give yourself the best chance of being heard.

April 30, 2015

We need to carve a third way forward to characterize the employer-employee relationship!

“We need to recapture some of the trust and relationship-building of the family model while acknowledging that the current economy for employers and employees alike demands a certain amount of flexibility. We need to carve a third way forward to characterize the employer-employee relationship.” 

“An alliance between HR and your employees is a relationship where two voluntary actors enter into a relationship characterized by mutual trust, mutual investment and mutual benefit.” 

“Lifetime employment may be over, but a lifetime relationship can and should endure.”

Ben Casnocha, former chief of staff of LinkedIn, gives the closing keynote address at the SHRM 2015 Talent Management Conference & Exposition

 I am encouraged! It comes back to the idea that we can be happy and productive in the workplace. I'm excited to see what emerges as the third way forward!

February 06, 2015

The importance of trust...

It is so trite. But it also is true. Trust is vital.

When we have the someone's trust and they feel confident in our abilities they will follow. Mediator's call this rapport. 

It was allows mediators to influence the process in a positive way the guide the participants toward resolution.

My friends Jarl and Steve picked up on the issue of trust in today's posting. As always it is full of wisdom:

Trust in Life

 

Only a very small percentage of the things you feel anxious about will actually turn out to be as bad as you fear. Poorly trained minds grab hold of scary thoughts and join them together like cars on a long train. The cumulative weight of these worries creates a momentum of it’s own. Habitually looking for what might go wrong eventually becomes a way of life that prevents you from noticing just how rarely things actually do go badly. The healthy alternative is to expect positive outcomes through actively developing your ability to…

Trust.

Jarl and Steve

http://gratitudetwentyfourseven.com/2015/02/trust-in-life/

September 20, 2007

Welcome!

This new blog is the result of feedback I received from readers of my Conflict Managment E-Newsletter. Many indicated that they wanted me to write more, and to share my pracitical insights about the management of conflict through articles, case studes, practice notes, and in the form of tips.

I have created a number of categories that appear in the left hand navigation bar. My intention is to add at least one new entry a month that will address the categories that I have created.

Please feel free to comment and add your thoughts as we go along.

With appreciation for your support,

John Ford