This Coaching Letter is about listening and empathy. I really appreciate Shane Parrish’s work, and I am grateful for the Brain Food newsletter, the Farnam Street blog (see this post on decision making, which is my favorite so far, although this one on mental models is also very interesting) and the Knowledge Project podcastAnd see also CL #61. However, I do think there’s a bit of a pattern: the interviews of women tend to be about “soft” skills, like having a conversation, and the interviews of men tend to be of subjects like investing, or technology. So while the interview I’m going to talk about below is terrific, I think it’s interesting that so much of the conversation is about parenting. Just occasionally, I would like to hear from a man about parenting and a woman about investing. (This conversation with Annie Duke on getting better by being wrong is a notable exception.)

A recent Knowledge Project podcast, Episode 57, features Sheila Heen talking about her work on the Harvard Negotiation Project. There are a couple of parts that I’d like to point out. First, her explication of listening as a fundamental skill and as a problem-solving technique. In particular, she talks about how important it is to listen when the speaker is hard to listen to—this is something we emphasize in our coaching training, when one of the homework assignments is to listen to someone you find hard to listen to, for whatever reason (a relative who is critical of the way you cook Thanksgiving turkey; a teacher who appears to you to have really low expectations for kids; a leader who is arrogant and a lousy listener).

Second, Heen makes the point that you shouldn’t think that you need to have a prior relationship in order to have an honest conversation. The conversation is the relationship. This is something else that we talk about in our coaching training—I think there’s a bit of a myth out there that coaches (and leaders, but especially coaches) need to “build a relationship” before they can engage in a coaching conversation. I don’t think this is true—I think the conversation is the relationship, and you should start as you mean to go on. Are you thinking that people aren’t going to notice that you have waited to start telling them what you really think? How is that supposed to build trust? I’ve been thinking about relationships a lot recently—more on that another time.

I want to add one other point. It is very hard to lead, coach, or otherwise help someone whom you don’t like or for whom you have no empathy. Listening to someone without judgment is really hard to do, but everyone has a story and everyone (OK, almost everyone) has values that they are doing their best to enact in their life and work, whatever cavils we have about their competence or their motivation. This means that, and I know how this sounds, you better figure out how to like people you don’t like if you are expecting to lead or coach them. You think they won’t notice if you don’t, or if you are faking?

Someone gave me a token recently with the word empathy engraved on it, and now that I carry it with me all the time, stories about empathy—or the lack thereof—seem to be all over the place. This story on the end of empathy is particularly alarming. We also know a lot about the “empathy gap”: the relationship between how much empathy we feel and how similar we view the person as being to us. This article is about the influence of race on empathy. Leaders don’t have a lot of empathy for their employees (I’ve included a link to this article in the Atlantic about power causing brain damage a couple of times, but not many clicks on it so far). This story about Stephen Trzeckiak and compassion in medicine (and you can watch his TED talk) is well worth reading. The good news is that some training in the neuroscience of empathy makes people more empathetic, and showing compassion to others is actually good for our own mental health.

So you can take care of others and take care of yourself at the same time. Isn’t that great? In that spirit, it seems a little self-serving to tell you that I would be glad to help you if there is anything I can do for you, and it’s also true! Yours, Isobel

Stevenson logo