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Empathy: A Keystone Habit



Paul Tevis explores how empathy – the ability to understand others' needs and ensure that they know that you understand them – is what Charles Duhigg calls a "keystone habit", a behavior change that unlocks other cascading behavior changes. He tries demystify what empathy is and give simple tools to enhance the practice of empathy.


Paul Tevis is a trainer, facilitator, and collaboration specialist at AppFolio in Santa Barbara, CA. His passion is helping people and organizations become the best possible versions of themselves.

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I already am looking out and realizing that if you're coming to this session in the last slot of the day, you're probably really interested in learning about it. Anybody here a little tired at the end of the day? Yes, I see some hands. I'll be doing some asking for hand-raising as we go.

So I'm going to try to refresh you a little bit. I want to take you on vacation. So imagine for a moment that you are in Alaska. Has anybody here ever been to Alaska? Cool, great. It’ll be easier for you to imagine then. Imagine that you are in the great state of Alaska. Alaska is a very large state, so I'm going to be a little more specific. I want you to imagine that you are just off the Coast of George Island, which is at the mouth of icy straight where it empties into the Gulf of Alaska. You are about 50 miles north of the town of Sitka and you are about 35 miles from the entrance to Glacier Bay and it is a 70 degree September afternoon. And you are there and you are on this glorious boat that you've been spending the last five days on. You've been immersing yourselves in the Alaskan wilderness, these crystal clear, calm waters, these steep sided fjords, beautiful landscapes and wonderful bits of nature. And as you are there and you've actually have gone out into a skiff ride, so with 10 other people in a little Zodiac, you look out over the side of the Zodiac and you see this.

So that's a wonderfully refreshing vacation. I hope you've gotten quickly on. I actually saw this. This is a picture that my wife took when we were in Alaska about two months ago. And what's interesting to me about this picture is that there are two things in it that if this picture had been taken 50 years ago, would not have been present. The first is this, those are the otters, these are the sea otters. And the second thing is this, which is less apparent, but very interesting that. So this is bull kelp. And the fact that neither of those would have been present 50 years ago, and the fact that those two things are related to each other, it's important to understand what I'm going to be talking about with regards to empathy, the rest of this talk.

So a brief ecological lesson. So otters love to eat many things, but among the many things they love to eat are sea urchins. Now, otters, unlike most marine mammals, do not have a layer of blubber under their skin to keep them warm in cold water. They have incredibly dense fur, which unfortunately made them very attractive to Russian fur traders. And so they were basically hunted to extinction in southeast Alaska around the end of the 19th century. And so by the time protections came into place in the early 20th century, they were basically gone from southeastern Alaska. Now the thing is that when they were gone, suddenly the urchin population took off and the urchins were like, "Great, nobody's going to eat us. We're going to eat what we love to eat." As it turns out, what they love to eat are the holdfasts that hold kelp to the bottom of the ocean floor. And so in the absence of any otters to drive down the urchin population, the Kelp forest in southeast Alaska went from this to this. These are called urchin barrens. Basically, when there's nothing to control sea urchin populations, they deforest the whole area.

Well, you might've noticed that this picture got taken and that there were otters and bull kelp in it. Why is that? Well, about 50 years ago in the 60s, they started relocating otters from the Aleutian Islands to this area of southeastern Alaska. I want to imagine for a moment, I want you to imagine that you're one of these 400 otters that just gets picked up and taken 4,000 miles across the ocean and dropped in southeast Alaska. So they pick up these 400 otters. They took them, they dropped them near Sitka and they just kind of turn them loose, let them do what they were going to do. And they've actually made a remarkable recovery.

So in Glacier Bay in 1993, there were five otters in the park. I was there this summer. There are 8,000 otters in the park now. I think we saw most of them. They were very cute, did little human things with their hands, but they've really made a giant rebound. And with the otters coming back, what's actually happened is the Kelp forests have returned. Now, Kelp forests, as you may know, are a tremendous source of biodiversity. They're habitat for a lot of different types of creatures. And the Kelp forest returning has actually had second and third order effects on the rest of the environments. So in fact, one of the things they've seen is that bald eagle populations are up because the fish that the eagles are dependent on have habitat in the forest. And so those stocks are up and the populations are up. And in general, the biodiversity on the health of the ecosystem in Southeast Alaska has massively improved in the last 50 years. So you may be wondering at this point, why is that?

Well, otters as it turns out are what's called a keystone species in this ecosystem. They exercise an outsize impact on the environment and basically they play a role that nothing else can really do that when they are present or not, it has a disproportionate impact on the ecosystem from just what their sheer numbers would suggest. You're like, "8,000 otters, that's not a big deal." But suddenly, all these other things are happening.

So what does that have to do with us as humans? So you may be familiar with the book, ''The Power of Habit'' which Charles Duhigg came out with a couple of years ago. Has anybody here read this book, familiar with it? Cool. So he studied the science of habit formation and if you were here for Tilde’s talk earlier, you heard a little bit about the ways that humans develop habits. One of the things that he writes about in that book, is what he calls keystone habits, which it turns out to be habits that once we pick them up, they create a cascading positive behavior change. The example he uses in the book is a real person who wanted to quit smoking. And so she came up with this “if then” habit, which is, “If I have a craving for a cigarette, I'm going to go for a jog.” So she created a replacement behavior for when she had this craving. And what happened was that within two years, she stopped smoking, ran a marathon, got promoted, paid off all her debts. I think she got out of an abusive relationship that she was in, and it had nothing to do with running. But what it had to do with is the fact that this created a system whereby she could actually create other cascading positive changes. And so he turned termed these keystone habits.

My name is Paul Tevis. I am a people development manager at AppFolio in Santa Barbara, California. Prior to that, I was an agile coach and prior to that, I spent 13 years as a software engineer. And what I want to talk with you about today is my experience of empathy and how empathy is a keystone habit for human relationships, because I believe like the otter in southeast Alaska, like the wolves in Yellowstone, like a number of these keystone species and like for many people, exercise and getting enough sleep can be a keystone habit for their behavior change. I believe that the presence or absence of empathy determines whether or not a human ecosystem can flourish.

Let that sink in for just a minute. The presence or absence of empathy determines whether or not a human ecosystem can flourish. It may not be sufficient on its own, but in its absence, the ecosystem is often stunted and fundamentally because this is the optimizing you track. I believe that developing the habit of empathy can make you a keystone contributor in your organization. Who was here for Georgiy's talk earlier today? I would hope you were, about being a senior developer. Being a senior is a set of behaviors, and fundamentally, I think that empathy is one of those behaviors that allows people to have outsized contributions to their organization.

I wanted to talk a little bit about what is empathy and particularly in the context of this talk. And then fundamentally, spoilers, it's about understanding. And I'm going to give you seven different pieces that you can use into these three different buckets. How you can help to come understand yourself, how you can understand others and how you can actually help in a situation for you and another person to understand them and understand each other. I will give you seven things that you can try, and again, if you were here for Tilde’s piece on habit building, these are now habits you can go back and try and instill in your daily life.

But before that, I want to give you two disclaimers. One is my role in most ecosystems is that I am a scavenger. The things you're going to be hearing today are pieces that I have picked up over my 18 or so professional years. This is not original research that I'm doing. I'm grabbing things from a lot of different places. But I'm putting things out that I think other people maybe able to use. What this means is that I'm going to be mentioning a lot of names and that's primarily because I want these to be resources that you can go pick up and try. So I'm going to try to cite my sources as much as I can so that if you hear something that really lands with you, you can go track it down. I don't want to just sound like I'm name dropping, but I want you to be fully equipped to work with this material.

Second disclaimer, I'm going to talk a lot about my own personal journey, not because I'm a narcissist, but because I've done a lot of self-reflection and because a lot of this is about inner work. And so I'm going to try to illustrate this with stories from my own career as a software engineer, as well as the roles that I've been in most recently. Sounds good? Can we move on? Great.

Understanding Empathy

What is empathy? Empathy is a really complex topic because it's always great when a speaker cites a dictionary to explain what it is, their thing is. And inevitably, dictionary definitions give you sort of where you're close to it, right? So it's the action of understanding and being aware of being sensitive to and vicariously experiencing the feeling. So empathy often gets broken down into a number of different components, particularly when it's studied by social psychologists. But what I want to talk about is this piece, perspective taking. Fundamentally in the rest of this talk, when I say empathy, what I want you to think about is the ability to come to understand the perspective that someone else has in their situation through their lens. This is not thinking about, “How would I feel if I were in that situation?” It's actually, how do they feel in that situation right now? Coming to understand their perspective. So when I talk about empathy, there are a lot of components to it, but today I'm really going to focus on perspective taking.

So raise your hand if your job would be easier for you if you were better at building trust. Do you think it'd be easier to build trust if you understood other people's perspectives? Cool. Would your job be easier if you were better at influencing others? Leave your hand up if you think that it would be easier to influence others if you understood their perspectives. Collaboration. Working with conflict, do you think perspective taking would make it easier to work with conflict?

I'm not necessarily going to try to convince you of this stuff because again, you came to this talk at 5:25 and the end of a long day. I trust that you've kind of bought into some of this already, but you should take some comfort in knowing there's actually a lot of research out there that shows that perspective taking helps groups be more creative. It helps people work with interpersonal conflict. It can actually really help with bias and stereotype production, reduction rather, let me be a little clear. And generally, perspective taking helps build stronger relationships and social bonds. So it's not just that you think this is a good idea, there's actual research that backs this up. I'm sure Sarah could give us a lot more.

So it's important to remember if we go back to that notion of the ecosystem, all of the work we do happens within a container of relationships. The stronger that container is, the more it's a resource that we have to draw on when the work gets hard. So fundamentally by employing perspective taking to strengthen that container of relationships, you're giving yourself and the group that is working within that a resource they can draw on to make the work easier.

Understanding Yourself

Let's talk a little bit about how you might come to understand yourself. And you're like, "I thought this is about perspective taking. I thought this is really about understanding other people." And the thing is, is that self-awareness is the first step towards understanding other people. There's actually some recent research out about this, about how people who actually have some understanding of how they work helps them develop what psychologists would call theory of mind, right? The idea that, oh, there are other brands out there and they do some thinking and they actually may work in a different way than my mind does. So maybe I can get curious about that. So in order to be able to come to take perspectives, you actually first need to understand, what's my perspective, where am I coming from?

And there's all sorts of personality assessments that you can do. They're going to help you to understand yourself. I love these. I do as many of them as I can because I always get some insight into them, but I actually want to talk about something a little different. I want to talk about the F word. Feelings. How many of you work in an environment where talking about feelings is discouraged? Frowned upon? How many times have you felt yourself going, "I shouldn't talk about how I'm feeling right now?" Anybody ever done that?

So my first tip that I actually want to share with you is treat feelings as data. So this comes from the work of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, and the idea is that feelings are a source of information that we can actually use. One of the ways that he talks about it is the idea is that an emotion is like one of those dashboard sensor lights, "No, check engine," right? I'm angry. “Oh, maybe this is a sign that I should get curious about why am I angry? What's going on with me?” It's a sign to get curious. Also, if everybody in the room is angry, maybe that's some data that we might want all work with. Maybe we should talk about what's going on there.

So in Rosenberg's work, he sort of talks about breaking this down into four steps. What am I observing? What's the behavior that I'm actually seeing? If you were here for Sarah's talk earlier, when you heard about situation, behavior, impact, feedback, what is the observable thing that I can actually see out there? And then ask, what feeling am I experiencing? Like what is the emotional state that I'm in right now? Am I angry, am I sad, am I happy? And then ask, what need of mine is or isn't being met that's giving rise to that feeling. And that's where a lot of Marshall Rosenberg's work is grounded, is the notion that feelings arise from needs either being met or unmet.

And so if I have the feeling and I think about it and I go, "Oh, I'm frustrated right now, why am I frustrated? Oh, because I'm not feeling heard, that my manager is not listening to me. Oh, well, I guess I need to figure out," and that's very different than, "Oh, I'm frustrated because everything is horrible," right? If I can actually start to pinpoint that need, I can start to think about, what might I actually do to help get that need met? And so the self-awareness piece of treating feelings as data, it can actually start to help you act in a way that's going to help your needs get met. And so actually do something useful about the situation and actually take some control over it.

For example, who here has ever been in a technical discussion where emotions ran high? What's an emotion that you might have been feeling in a technical discussion? Anyone? Maybe an unpleasant feeling? Frustration, frustration. So if you've ever been frustrated, think about a specific technical discussion that you've been frustrated in. What is the need of yours that was not being met in that moment that might have given rise to that frustration? Communication, like a feeling of actually being connected to the other person, being heard. Anyone else?

So one of the ways I might phrase that that your need for achievement, for motion or progress, right, moving towards something, was not being met. That's the nice way of saying it. But it's really about what's this in you? It's never out here. All of this is stimulus, but the cause is actually in here. I had one over here.

Participant 1: It's about not being respected.

Tevis: Not being respected. Yes. Not being listened to. Yes, absolutely. That's by the way, when I ask that question in technical environments, inevitably, it's frustration at not being listened to. So the great thing about this talk is it's going to give you some tools for listening to people so they won't feel that way so you may not have to feel that way. All right, that's great. You got this. So that's number one. So that's the primary thing that I want to give you for helping to understand yourself, is giving yourself permission to interrogate your feelings. What's actually going on with me that may be giving rise to this feeling in this moment, rather than trying to push it to the side? Treat it as a break, as a warning light to get curious.

Understanding Others

So now let's talk about working with others. And one of the pieces that I found really useful in this is the idea of levels of listening. So this is about coming to understand the other people. And idea, this comes from the Coaches Training Institute and some work that they do in their coaching practice about levels of listening. The idea is that if you want to create empathy, you want to listen at least level two. So let's tell you what those levels are.

So level one is sort of internal listening, but it's listening to the other person in terms of how that matters to you. Sometimes this is listening, meaning waiting for your turn to talk. Has anybody here engaged in that maybe today? Perfect. This is like, if you've ever thought, “Yes, but how does this apply to me? Why do I care?” You're at level one, right? And there's nothing wrong with that, but that's not actually helping you with perspective taking. So if you find yourself in your head and your voice is going while you're listening to somebody else, you're probably level one.

Level two, they talk about it as focused listening and it's about putting the focus on the other person. And when that little voice comes up and says, "Well, how does this matter to me?" Kind of gently, kindly putting that to the side and coming back and focusing on the other person, and asking and just focusing on what does this matter? Does this matter to them? They also talk about level three listening, the listening to what the other person is saying in the context of whole energetic space and contextually, what does this mean? Not just about the other person, which is kind of soft focus there, which can be really useful.

But one of the things that's interesting is that when you listen to people at level two, you will often have what some people have termed empathic presence, which is the ability to simply be with another person and without saying anything, to have them feel like you really understand them. Has anybody ever been in a conversation like that, where you feel like the other person didn't need to say anything, and they just totally got you? Anybody? A few hands here. Has anybody been able to do that, where you've just been able to listen so deeply that the other person at the end just kind of says, ''Wow, thanks for listening. That was really useful”? And you've said nothing the whole time. So as it turns out, that's a skill you can develop, that putting the focus on the other person. When you're having that conversation, oftentimes, they can tell and they can feel much understood. Also, you tend to really listen. And you get better information when you're really doing that. So my second tip for developing the habit of empathy is practice that level two listening, practice that empathic presence.

Tip number three, this comes from the work of Dr. Virginia Satir, which is noticing your judgments. There's been a number of comments about “If people are leaving in the middle of the talk, I'm not going to judge it.” Of course I'm going to judge it, right? But I'm going to notice that I'm doing it, right? I'm going to notice my part in that. So Dr. Satir talked about a model for thinking about how we take information in, and it's very dry, or as she calls it, the Satir interaction model. There's intake, there's meaning, there's significance, there's response. Let me decode that a little bit for you.

So the first stage is what did I just see? What did I just hear? Back to the observable behavior of business, right? What was the thing actually out there? She says, that's the first thing that happens when we experience something. The second thing that happens is that we assign significance to that thing. We say, "Oh, what did that mean?" And we evaluate that in terms of our prior experience, all the things that are going on with us. And then we sort of get to the, "Oh, how do I feel about that now that I've assigned meaning to it?" It turns out that if you haven't assigned meaning to it, you can't actually have a feeling about it. Try getting angry about nothing. But you pick like one thing and you get angry about it real fast, right? And then, “Okay, great, what will I do now?” We often go through these stages so quickly and automatically we don't recognize that they are happening, which is why if you did the exercise earlier about situation, behavior, impact, it's very easy for people to describe behaviors that are actually at that level of meaning. They've already assigned significance to it. Being rude, you've assigned a meaning.

So the important thing here is to recognize what are you inserting into this and recognizing it's not just about the other person. When somebody is doing something, you are making a judgment about what they're doing, you're assigning meaning to their actions. If someone is showing late at standup every day, what might that mean? Anybody? Has anybody ever had that situation where somebody shows up late to stand up? Come on. You all have, right? What do you think that means? What have you said to yourself about what that means? They don't care. What else? What else might it mean? Lack of responsibility, right? What else might it mean? It causes a distraction. So essentially, that's actually an impact. You're actually saying, "Oh, there is an impact here." Right? Well, you haven't assigned meaning to it.

Participant 2: You have to take wife to the bus station every day.

Tevis: Has to take his wife to the bus station everywhere so she can go somewhere. So we tell ourselves these stories. So the thing is, until you ask, until you find out, your judgment about that meaning may or may not be correct. So when you find yourself doing this, particularly when you find yourself where you're having difficulty empathizing with someone, when you're having difficulty taking their perspective, ask yourself, “What story am I telling myself about what I just saw or heard? What part of this am I filling in that I may or may not actually have a factual basis for?” Cognitive biases? Cognitive biases live in this space. We tell ourselves all kinds of stories about things. Thank you for bringing that up.

So sometimes you've got somebody and they do something and you're telling yourself a story about it. Here's a tip that I really like that I got from my friend Allen, which is when you've got this behavior that you just can't explain, just ask WTF. Where's that from? What did you think it was going to be? Don't answer that. What's actually behind that? Get curious about that story. It becomes like a problem-solving experiment. Suppose that the other person is actually a reasonable person, why might they actually do that? Because we have a tendency to fall afoul of what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error, which is one of my favorite things. I don't know why. It just is.

The fundamental attribution error is that we tend to believe that we are victims of circumstance. While other people, their actions express their true character. My actions reflect my circumstance. Other people, that's just who they are. If I cut you off in traffic, it's because I had three brand muffins and a cup of coffee. If you cut me off in traffic, it's because you are a garbage person. How often do we do this? Every day, right? When we drive every day. So this is a piece of noticing your judgments, right? Of noticing that what you're inserting in there. But really ask yourself, this is a behavior that I just don't understand. If I assume this is actually a reasonable person, they have a good reason for acting the way they do given their circumstances, what must those circumstances be? What might they be? Think through that. It becomes a problem that you can work on.

Understanding Each Other

So everything so far has not actually required you to speak to anyone else. All of these pieces are things you can do entirely inside your own head. Is that something comforting for some of you? And as it turns out, do a lot of this work inside your own head before you let words come out of your mouth. But fundamentally at some point, you're going to want to actually talk with somebody else about this. In order to find out what's going on with people, in order to get their perspective, you're going to need to interact with them. So these last three pieces are about what you can actually do in interaction with other people.

The first is about helping other people empty their cup. This is actually a fairly famous story in Zen Buddhism. I actually heard it through a slightly different route, and actually heard it through, something that Bruce Lee had heard from one of his masters, which is a story about tea. And the story goes that there was a Zen master who heard that a scholar wished to come and learn from him. And so he invited the scholar and they sat down to tea together. And as they sat together at tea, the scholar began to talk about all of the things that he knew and all of the things he wished to learn from the master and all the questions that he had and all of the opinions that he had about things that he had heard and all of these contradictions that he knew about within this philosophy. And as he continued to talk, the master picked up the tea kettle and began to pour into the cup of the scholar. And as he continued to talk, the master continued to pour until eventually the level of the liquid reached the edge of the cup and began to spill out. And the scholar said, "What are you doing? Do you not know that you cannot pour tea into a cup that is already full?" The master said, "Precisely."

Now this story is often told because it's about the concept of beginner's mind, about letting go of the things that you know. But the context in which I learned it was actually in the context of facilitation where as a facilitator, if I'm working with a group that has a lot of strongly-held opinions that are not shared, people can't let go of their own idea until they think at least one other person in the group or in the room knows what it is, that if we have a strongly-held idea, we will continue to repeat it until we believe that someone else gets it. And we cannot hear other people's ideas while we are in that state.

As a facilitator, I was trained to help people empty their cup, and I would do that by helping them understand that someone else knew what it was that they were trying to say. It might not be one of the other people in the group. It might be me as the facilitator. And the way that we would often do that was with a tool called reflective listening. This is slightly different than active listening, which you may have heard of. It's also a slight subset of that. But reflective listening is basically just mirroring or paraphrasing or summarizing back to the person what you think they are saying and checking for understanding. So what I think I'm hearing right now is that you're very frustrated by this change order process, because it causes you a lot of extra work. And they say, yes, that's exactly what it is. And you can often visibly see them relax.

Anybody ever been in a situation where you just wanted somebody to say back to you what you'd been saying the whole meeting? Anybody ever? So as it turns out, this is a thing you can do for other people. You can help them empty their cup. You don't have to agree with what they're saying. You can just help them feel understood, knowing that they've communicated effectively. Great. They're not going to lose it and now they can actually hear what you might actually need to say to them. So this is the advanced move, you can actually ask for help in emptying your own cup. If you've got a thing that you recognize, you've done near sort of inner work and realized, "I can't let this go right now. I just need someone else to reflect it back to me.” You can ask them to do that.

Tip number six, this comes from Jim McCarthy. And Jim and Michelle McCarthy's work on the core protocols, which is one of the commitments. This is about how to work effectively with other people. One of the commitments is that you will know and disclose what it is you think, feel and want. You'll know and disclose what you think, feel and want, because it actually helps the other people in the group to work with that, to be aware of what's going on, to reveal some context. If you were here for Cameron's [Jacoby] talk, you heard a lot about knowing and disclosing what's going on with you. But this is the coming out of your mouth part of the treating feelings as data. Once you come to recognize, “This is a thing that I'm thinking, feeling and wanting”, the group can now work with that. And that's information that they need to know in most cases, because your behavior, it's going to come out sideways otherwise.

So this is a little reading for my diary bit. I had a very interesting last year or so. It's been, as we've described, a series of medium-sized events. It's nothing terrible. All right. No giant upheavals of my life, but just enough of them over and over again that it just wears down after a while. Anybody had a period of time like that in their life? Where you’re just kind of worn down and you start to maybe have a little less empathy for yourself? Start to have maybe go, "I'm terrible. I'm going to beat myself up." So I posted on Facebook because I recognized that, I got in touch with what was going on with me, I was treating feelings as data. And I said, "I'm feeling a little overwhelmed right now and I'm recognizing that my need to be skillful, to feel like I have an impact, my need to matter was not being met in a lot of situations that I was in." And so I put out a request onto my Facebook wall and I just said, "Hey, if I've ever been with you and we've done something together that was awesome, or it was helpful to you, or if I was ever kind to you," because I was doubting my ability to be kind, "just let me know, give me some data to counteract this impression that I have right now. The story I'm telling myself, give me something to work against that."

You'll notice there are 193 comments on this. So I posted this. I live in Santa Barbara. I was driving down to San Diego, posted it just before I got in the car, was in the car for four hours, and I got to San Diego and I opened it up and I was just like, "Okay, let's see what's here." Right. And so there was a little bit of stuff from some of my friends, they were just kind of being nice. They're like, "Oh, you've always been kind. I miss hanging out." My friend Tim and Danielle, I officiated their wedding, they're still married, which is great. I'm not going to take credit for that one. Right. But then it started to get a little interesting. Then people who I've worked with at a professional capacity were like, "Hey, these are ways you've really positively impacted stuff that I've done."

And then, my friend, Heidi, who is largely the reason why I'm here today, both actually here and just generally here, was just like, "Look, this thing, you did this thing, you did this thing. This is the impact that you've had." I got some weird ones, like people who I haven't talked to since middle school, like literally, and yes, Trevor was actually a jerk to me in middle school. He's totally right on with this, but it's like this came out of nowhere. I have not talked with Trevor since 1993 and then my friend, Tom, who again, I have not spoken with him since I graduated from high school in 1996.

This only happened because I was willing to do the work to get in touch with where I was at and I was willing to put it out there and ask for something that I needed. And I have to say that it was pretty amazing. And also going through this, preparing for this talk when I'm getting ready to come for this and feeling like I have a bit of imposter syndrome about even being up here talking about these things, really great to come back to this. I'm really glad I picked us, but that again, only happened because I was willing to put it out there and I was willing to trust that other people were willing to take on my perspective to see where I was coming from. And also knowing that I don't know everything that's out there. I don't know how I always have an impact. And so I should get curious about what's the impact that I've had.

The last thing is the one thing that I can't actually trace to a thing that I've read, it's probably synergized from a whole bunch of different things. But it's that when you do something like that, when you say something hard, ask how it's landing with people. Ask for people's reactions because you may be doing something that's very scary for them. By the way, the phone call that I got from my mom after I posted that was pretty awesome. She's like, "Are you okay?" Because I went to this place of extreme vulnerability. And I know most people don't see me do that, particularly online. And my mom's like, "Is everything all right?" I'm like, "Yes, I'm feeling a lot better now. Things were a little rough."

But particularly when I'm interacting with somebody else and I notice that a conversation is starting to get hard, if we think back to that Satir intake model of how we process things, it can be really useful to stop and slow down and actually help the other person, or help yourself, work through those stages. And then just ask, "Hey, I've just given somebody feedback on their career, maybe at an annual review, that maybe they didn't want to hear.” So I probably want to check out how did that sound? Like what happened there? So I have a set of questions that I will ask. Put these in your own voice. But I'll ask, how was it to hear that? Because sometimes it's like, “Yes, actually that wasn't a surprise.” Right? And there's actually kind of a relief that someone else has seen it too. Oh, okay. Or I might ask like, "Oh, how does that land with you?" Like, "Well, something doesn't quite sit right." I'm like, "Okay, cool. Let's, figure out what's the observable behavior thing that we're missing here. What does that bring up for you?" They're like, "Oh, you know, that makes me realize maybe there's this other thing going on over there."

This is my favorite. “I'm wondering if that was hard to hear”. Because sometimes you acknowledging that that's a possibility gives the other person permission to say, “Yes, actually it really is hard to hear.” But that may not be a thing that they would be willing to say by themselves unprompted. So asking good questions and really creating that dialogue back and forth. I'm going to listen deeply. I'm going to ask good questions. I'm going to help you empty your cup. I'm going to live in that empathic space and I'm going to ask good questions. I'm going to let you know how that lands with me. I'm going to tell you where I'm at and I'm going to ask you how that lands with you. And creating that dance, that dialogue back and forth, that mutual perspective taking is the thing that enables those powerful webs or relationships that we're talking about and allows us to really get work done.

So that's the areas we've gone through. What is empathy? Why does it matter? And fundamentally, I do want to say that while I think that empathy is really important in terms of being good humans, right, it's also tremendously important because it allows us to get hard work done. It allows us to drive results. Businesses are effective, are more effective when they're actually able to have those strong networks or relationships that people can draw on to actually do the hard work. So I don't do this just because I think it makes us better people. I do it because it actually gets us better results.

I talked about understanding yourself, understanding others, helping each other to understand each other. I've shared with you these seven tips, things that you can do and go home and practice. Treat feelings as data. Use that empathic presence by living at least level two, listening at least level two, noticing your judgments, asking where is that from, helping other people to empty their cup, know and disclose what you think, feel and want, and ask for reactions. Because it's my belief that if you take those and you build those habits and you exhibit those behaviors on a daily basis, you can do the hard work of actually building those habits. These things are simple, but they are not easy.

My canonical metaphor for this, for explaining this, is running a marathon is simple. Start running, stop 26.2 miles later. It's not easy. You've got to do the hard work to actually make it possible. If these things have sounded simple, it's because they are, and they're probably not easy. So you need to practice them. You need to make them a habit. You need to actually do all of those things that are going to allow you to pick the ones and live the ones on a daily basis, because then you can help create those rich ecosystems. You can be a key contributor in your organization, in your community, and in the world. Because the work that I've done over the last 18 years really tells me that that type of perspective taking and that type of empathy is something that we all need more of and that our world needs more of. With that, I thank you for coming and listening to me. Open to any questions.

Questions and Answers

Participant 3: My question is - we talked about understanding ourselves and being empathetical selves. But how do we talk to a team member that doesn't ask those questions of themselves? How do we get them to start thinking about that with someone that isn't empathetic?

Tevis: Yes. My mother is an education professor. She had a cartoon on her desk for years that I loved, which was a person standing in a bookstore and they're in the self-improvement section and they're saying to the clerk, "What do you have on improving other people?" Right? Because it's like, “Okay, I get this, but how do I get other people to do this?” Fundamentally, it's modeling. It's doing that. So that piece of my Facebook post of “What's about to happen here?” that came from my friend, Megan, because she's been doing those sort of experiments in radical honesty and asking for what she needs. And I was inspired to do that by what I was seeing. I mean, there's certainly a degree to which the degree to where you will know and disclose things to where you do the inner work and then talk about like, "Hey, I've learned some things about myself and this is what I've learned” and maybe for example, point them at some resources about that.

Ultimately, you can't make them do it, but the degree to which you do it, and which you normalize that behavior and you model that behavior and that other people do it, that's the degree to which that keystone sort of thing comes into place that it just seems natural to do. So it's probably the unsatisfying answer to your question. You're like, "Just use this one weird trick and other people will become self-aware." I don't have that unfortunately. And if anybody has any tricks like that, please come find me because I want to know what they are. So fundamentally, model it. Do it yourself. And signpost it. "Hey, I'm doing this because I know that this type of behavior leads to better results. Not just because I'm doing it.”

Participant 4: This is something I've noticed about myself and I'm not 100% sure how to get around it. But so if I'm listening to somebody, and say they're opening up to me or they have something on their mind, they're talking about stuff like that, I have like this need to try to start throwing in suggestions and fixing it or something. And I'm like, it's hard for me to figure out, do they want me to help or do they want me to listen? And you know what I mean? Like tips for that.

Tevis: Ask. Simple and not easy. But yes, you need to know like, "Hey, I just want to get clear because I want to be helpful to you. Do you want me to offer some suggestions as I think about them, or do you just want me to listen?" My wife and I have come to this understanding after a number of years, because I do a lot of external processing. I work things out by hearing myself say them. And she can say to me with no malice or prejudice, "I just want to be clear, do you need me to listen or do you just need to talk?" Because I'm not clear about that sometimes, right? And so I will honestly go like, "Oh yes, you know, this just needs to be out here." And she'll go, "Oh, okay, great." But it's the same thing, and sometimes, it's like, “Oh, I have not been bottom-lining this. Here's why this matters. Thank you for pointing out that I haven't been clear.” So that's just a case where you just need to ask, "Hey, I want to be helpful. Do you need me to listen? Do you want me to offer suggestions? Do you want me to reflect back?" You can ask, which will probably feel weird the first several times you do it, but does that seem like it would be useful? Great.

Participant 5: Some people just don't have empathy. Are these tricks just harder for them to put in practice, or it's just kind of impossible?

Tevis: I want to dig a little in there when you say some people just don't have empathy. What do you mean by that?

Participant 5: It's like just the mirror in the wall.

Tevis: Yes, I will say remember I'm a scavenger, I'm not a trained neuroscientist. Fortunately, there's one in the house. Yes, a lot of this stuff is aimed at a relatively neuro-typical audience. But some of these behaviors, for example, this is an area where I'm not going to speak with authority. So I actually there is a degree to which many of these are reliant on the other person really feeling, for example, the emptying the cup part, or empathic presence. It's about the other person. Do they feel like you're really listening to them? Does it feel genuine? There are times when I can think I'm genuinely listening to somebody and whatever they're picking up for me says I'm not listening. You see where I'm fumbling a little bit right here. And I'm just like, "I don't actually know." A lot of this is drawn from my own experience. I'd love to talk a maybe a little more afterwards. So sorry, different unsatisfying answer.

Participant 6: I have the easiest question ever. Can you pull up the last slide with the seven tips on it? I want to take a photo.


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Recorded at:

Feb 01, 2019

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