Episode #4 of the course Integrative thinking: A practical guide for leaders by Jennifer Riel
Welcome back to Integrative Thinking: A Practical Guide for Leaders. Today, we’re going to talk about a second critical concept for creative problem solving: empathy.
What is empathy? And why do we think it is so important for problem solving?
The Right Answer
Let’s take a step back—all the way to elementary school. There, many of us learned that there are right answers and that our job is to quickly find them. In this pursuit, any answers that differ materially from the single right answer are both unhelpful and wrong.
Yet, as we’ve discussed, the world we live in is wonderfully complex. It’s so complex that in order to function, we build simplified models of what we see just to get through the day. And just as we are busily filtering our complexity and simplifying our world, so is everyone else—through their own unique lenses. This means, in practice, that it is quite natural for two people to experience the same thing and interpret it in very different ways.
It doesn’t feel that way, though.
When you see the world one way and a colleague sees it another, it feels an awful lot like the other person is wrong. In such cases, we tend to patiently explain the right answer. And if they don’t get it right away, we explain it again, slower and louder, until someone gives in.
What if, instead of quickly judging who is right and who is wrong, we instead used the existence of opposing perspectives as a cue to curiosity? What would that look like? It turns out that it would look an awful lot like empathy.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to experience things as if we were in another person’s shoes. Empathy isn’t the same as liking another person or being nice to them or agreeing with them. It is about genuinely seeking to understand who another person is, what they think, and how they feel—without ascribing value judgments as you do so.
You’ve likely experienced empathy yourself. I’ll tell you a story about making dinner last night, how I got distracted as I was chopping vegetables, and suddenly, the sharp knife sliced right into my ring finger. You may have flinched as you read this story. You may have seen the knife in your mind or even “felt” the cut of it. That is the automatic flush of empathy—of shared experience—that almost all humans experience.
People are complex and flawed, so these automatic empathy impulses aren’t quite enough to build the kind of sophisticated understanding we need in order to create great choices. As we explored in Lesson 3, our higher reasoning can get in the way.
To create great choices, we need to cultivate controlled empathy—a purposeful and directed attempt to understand others and their experiences. Curiosity about others and a desire to see the world as they do is essential if we hope to truly collaborate and leverage a diversity of views toward better answers.
Cultivating empathy starts with seeking to learn more about other people. This may come in the form of:
• focused observation: watching people interact with their environment and seeking to notice when they do something you don’t expect
• search of stories: asking people to share their personal narratives; stories are important because they help illustrate real moments and build a richer picture of individual opinions
• new experiences: sometimes, the best way to build empathy is to actually experience what another person goes through, to actually live as they do and experience what they experience, explicitly focusing on stumbles and moments of truth as you do
The more you practice with these tools, the more you will build your capacity for empathy. You will find yourself more and more curious about others, especially when they see the world differently than you do. Even better, you will find that empathy is not a one-way street. The more open and curious you demonstrate yourself to be to others, the more likely they are to be curious and open about you.
Only with empathy do we have real shot of understanding how others think and to truly learn from their perspectives. It is a second key component of our integrative approach to creating choices, after metacognition. The third and final element is creativity. We’ll explore that next time.
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