Empathy is your superpower

Embark on your empathy origin story with these two simple tricks
Thursday, August 22, 2019

Once a year I volunteer as a chaperone for a middle & high school technology/design/creative competition. The events range from fashion & technology to building balsa wood bridges to designing one-day technical/engineering solutions for real-world problems. It’s a glorious mess. And since I love teaching and working with kids, it’s an opportunity I really enjoy. Imagine spending five days with a couple of classrooms full of future engineers, programmers, fashion designers, and storytellers. It’s wonderful.

This year, one of the students was worried about her judges’ interview—a private conversation with three judges that would count for a large part of her final score. Last year, as a middle school student, she took first prize in her competition. This year, as a freshman in high school, she was in a whole new class of competition, and up against a lot of students who were older than her.

Her nervousness was reasonable. The judges invite you into a room and drill you with questions. Sometimes they’re nice; often they’re purposefully serious. If you’ve never had an interview like this before, it can be daunting.

So this student came to me, expressed her nervousness, and asked for my advice. I shared one of my favorite tricks for dealing with a room full of strangers: simply, when you walk into the room, tell yourself a story about each of them. Make each story realistic. And let the stories make those strangers likable and interesting to you.

For example, I love rock climbing, so it’s easy to look at an interviewer and imagine, “she was a champion rock climber in her youth, and now she takes her three children to the rock gym twice a week.” Or, because I am also a musician, “he played in a band that almost made it big, but now he just plays guitar when his family goes to the beach.”

The result—most of the time—is powerful. It’s easier to look those strangers in the eye, easier to smile at them as you speak, easier to feel a connection with them.

They change from strange creatures into real human beings. The crazy thing is, even though everything you tell yourself is manufactured, the emotional connection you feel—however slight—is real (at least for you, in that one moment when it matters) . . . and it changes the whole experience for the better.

This simple trick works when you don’t have time or space to forge a deeper connection. This tends to happen when:

  1. You know there won’t be time for small talk.
  2. You probably won’t see the people you’re interacting with again—or if you do, it’ll be in a similarly constrained situation.

This is common when you interview for a job, present to judges at a competition, even when you buy stamps (unless you do that often enough to get to know the folks behind the counter). It’s a great way to get comfortable with people fast. Try it for yourself.

And if a manufactured connection—under the right circumstances—is a good thing, how much better is a real one?

Using small talk as a bridge

Most people I know hate small talk. Or at least they say they do. “I hate going to parties like that . . . all we did was make small talk.” Even the name is pejorative: it’s not just talk; it’s small talk.

I understand why people feel this way. Honestly, when I’m at a party with people I don’t know, talking about things I don’t care much about . . . I hate it, too.

But to be clear: creatives who are client-facing—and especially creatives whose jobs are predominantly collaborative in nature . . . we wield small talk like it’s a superpower. We look for every opportunity to learn a bit more about the people we serve. What makes them happy? What do they find frustrating? What do their weekends look like? What kind of family life do they have? What do they like to eat?

If you could be a fly on the wall the first time I meet a client, you’d see this in action—me, asking small questions, quietly, calmly, working my way gently through her life until I find a strong, capable, sturdy rope of connection.

We both love cooking. We enjoy soccer. We loved Cape Town when we were there. We think Irish music is fantastic. We hate being out in the sun for too long.

Whatever it is, I take hold of that connection firmly and use it as a platform for trust with my client—the same way I do when I invent a connection—except that in this case, the connection is real. It’s a lot more robust—and it needs to be because I’m going to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with my client, working hard to help her accomplish her goals.

So my simple admonition to you is this: don’t shy away from small talk. Use it to find ways to better understand and appreciate the people you work with.

Conserve yourself

One quick side note for those of you who are naturally deeply empathetic: if you’re one of these people, don’t be afraid to throttle back—you have a responsibility to be emotionally present, but you don’t have to give a client or a partner everything.

If your tendency is to feel what everyone else around you is feeling . . . wield that ability like the superpower it is; but also recognize that you need space to be yourself, to recover, and to be prepared to be present at the right time, in the right way.

Plan time for yourself. Give yourself space to recover. Take space for you to make space for them. And don’t underestimate how important your natural empathetic skills are to your team.

Empathy as a practice

There’s a reason I’ve given you two extremely pragmatic suggestions for how to be more successful by becoming more empathetic.

Empathy is definitely an emotional response: it’s the ability to “feel” the way someone else feels and measure your response to them accordingly. But empathy is also a practice: it’s the desire to actually understand another human, and then the ability to ask questions that help you get to that understanding.

In our work, clients need us to partner with them more than anything else; empathy often allows us to discover the needs behind their requests, and (if necessary) to reconfigure our work with them so it is even more effective.

So I encourage you to go out into the world and put empathy to the test. Make up stories where you have to. Make small talk where you’re able. And most importantly, make deeper connections with your clients and partners.

Jeremy Varo-Haub

Jeremy is a senior designer and lead strategist at Territory, where he uses his expertise in helping companies use strategy, innovation, transformation, and storytelling to accelerate their performance and capability. With over 20 years of experience as a designer, technologist, and facilitator, Jeremy brings deep experience complimented by a uniquely balanced mindset to his work. Jeremy lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his wife, Amy, and his two daughters, Zoe and Sarafina.

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