Originally published in 2019
Have you experienced times when you felt you did your best and you hear only criticism. How about feeling completely misunderstood or unappreciated when your accomplishments seem to be in plain sight?
Many of us spend a significant portion of our lives in an office environment, working toward building a sustainable enterprise, as well as our personal growth.
Are you enjoying the journey?
In the office environment, most of us recognize the value in being friendly and accommodating, especially if that friendly attitude comes from a genuine acceptance and liking of our co-workers. Sometimes we hold back full truth in favor of protecting feelings and/or keeping the relationship friendly.
When we don’t have the tools for communicating with compassionate efficiency, we might hold back, and pay the price in these potential ways:
- Potentially vital information is not shared.
- Decrease in how well we know each other’s preferences.
- Increase in resentment.
- Decrease in respect.
Let’s look at an example
We’ve noticed and felt concern over some behaviors in the weekly strategic planning meetings. Mary, the COO, facilitates them. When high priority action items get side tracked by items we consider to be superfluous, we feel frustrated because we value efficiency. We want to tell Mary, the COO, that we can see more efficient ways to run a strategic planning meeting but we hesitate. The last time we tried, Mary reacted defensively and shut down the conversation. We might assume she is not comfortable with change or constructive criticism.
Let’s begin by putting ourselves in Mary’s shoes. We’ll assume we know the following:
She has many responsibilities and daily challenges. She is actually concerned herself about the weekly strategic planning meetings and feeling a bit overwhelmed. The CEO (Richard) has been breathing down her neck to allow his cousin, Jimmy, to have a voice. Mary has grown to abhor the meetings she used to enjoy. It takes all of her willpower to keep cool whenever Jimmy speaks. She can tell it is affecting the project managers but feels like she is between a rock and a hard place.
What’s the point?
The point here is that everyone has a story and values/needs they are attempting to serve by the actions we see them taking. Let’s call this “strategies to meet needs/values.” If we take the time to hear and understand their story, to empathize, we can dissolve the “us vs. them” perspective that is keeping us from approaching them with a more empathetic angle.
What is the next step in our strategy to improve our relationship with Mary?
Let’s take on the role of a Project Manager named Jane. Jane could say something like the following to her:
Jane: “Hey Mary. Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a shift in the weekly strategic planning meetings. I am curious how it has been for you?”
Mary: “Me too. It’s not an easy topic.”
Jane: “I hear that! Are you feeling overwhelmed, wanting solutions, but also needing to trust that our conversation can be kept between us?”
Jane: “Deal. You are safe. What’s it like to be in your role, with expectations and pressure coming at you from all sides?”
Mary: “It’s hard, Jane. Richard’s eyes glaze over any time I bring up Jimmy.”
Jane: “Are you noticing how Jimmy’s input slows the meetings down, wanting to somehow fix that, but worried how Richard will react?”
Notice how Jane is listening for feelings, needs, and wants? She is building a trusting connection with Mary and refining her own knowledge of the situation so they can more efficiently brainstorm together on a solution.
Let’s stick with the office environment but shift to a slightly different kind of situation where we will apply the same tool.
Imagine the space in time between what you perceive someone tells you they are not happy with something you did or didn’t do and your reaction (defense, offense, apology, retreat). That time period is malleable. With some exercise, you can increase the amount of internal processing you can get done within that time period.
Imagine feeling as if you have plenty of time once you experience something, to ask yourself, “How does anger in this situation serve me?” Sometimes you may wish to choose to hold on to and display anger and sometimes not. And with the practice I will mention below, you will even decrease the chances of even feeling anger in the first place! But the point here is that you have choice. You are not a slave to your emotions. With practice: You have the time to dispassionately examine the moment and choose which reaction will best serve you.
We call this tool “Practical Empathy” (PEQ), based on Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, and more recently on the book Practical Empathy by Scott Swain. We’ll assume that’s what we mean every time we say “PEQ” or “empathy” here.
How do we apply PEQ in potentially volatile “office environment” situations?
Boss: “You were late with the report, flake.”
Response – Defensive: “I’m not a flake! My dog ate the report.”
Alternative Response – Empathetic: “I’m guessing you want to trust the reliability of my word and know that I understand how late delivery affects you?”
Boss: “I see the project is behind schedule.”
Response – Defensive: “You didn’t remind me, dictator.”
Alternative Response – Empathetic: “I’m guessing integrity is important to you and this can impact how the client sees you? Would you like to talk about a solution?”
Items to note about the empathetic response
– We are guessing at values/needs, for better understanding of each other. This helps in dealing with not just the current situation, but all future interaction.
– We are practicing and showing the ability and desire to listen in a focused manner, showing curiosity and that we value how the situation affects the other person.
– We are taking responsibility for how our actions affect others and we are helping the other person take responsibility for their reaction.
– This is practicing empathy. Every time we pause to look at the situation from the other person’s perspective and guess at their values/needs – “trust”, “integrity”, and “understanding” in this case – we are strengthening our ability to empathize and working toward this becoming automatic.
Benefits to the entire company
- Shift of attitudes to more positive.
- Shift of moods from apathetic to more empathetic.
- Fostering an atmosphere where more personal responsibility is encouraged, enjoyed, and accepted.
- Increased individual and company-wide efficiency.
- Smoother lateral and upward transitions within the company.
- Decreased employee turn-over.
All of which leads to improved company sustainability and increased profit margins.