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by Radu Atanasiu

original drawing by Kira Atanasiu

I wrote recently that empathy is the one ingredient that should not be absent from sensitive discussions between employer and employee. A while ago I wrote how empathy is the secret of a successful sale (of products, services, even ideas). Great! But if empathy is such an incredible instrument, how do we gain it, train it, and enhance it? I will try to sketch below a short user manual.

But first, do we have empathy to start with? (not much!)

How do we, Romanians and Eastern Europeans, rank in an international study on empathy? Not gloriously. The whole region stands poorly. A 2017 study on empathy, led by William J. Chopik from the University of Michigan, ranks Eastern Europe last, 11th out of 11 large regions analyzed. And Romania ranks 54th out of 63 countries included in the study. This should worry us deeply. The research looks at two types of empathy: affective empathy, the way in which we understand and rhyme with what the person in front of us feels, and cognitive empathy, the way in which we understand how the person in front of us thinks. Romania is in a slightly better position for affective empathy (48th out of 63), compared to our ranking in cognitive empathy (59th of 63!). In conclusion, we are similar to our neighbors in our lack of empathy, we don’t know how (or we aren’t in the mood?) to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. And even if we, Romanians, do have a slight understanding of what the others feel, it’s very difficult for us to understand how they think.

As empathy is the key to healthy relationships and a main ingredient in persuasion, what should we focus upon when we need to enhance it?

Let’s assume you recently promoted Maria in a managerial position. Maria, who now leads the team she has been a part of, continues to outperform in her individual projects and is getting along extraordinarily well with her team, however she is reluctant to offer them bad feedback when they mess up or under-perform. You need to have a discussion with her on Monday and you hope that this discussion will help her improve her management style, without affecting her enthusiasm. How can you activate your empathy for this sensitive discussion? You need to pay attention to and activate three kinds of empathy: affective empathy, empathy for values, and cognitive empathy. Let’s take them one at a time:

Affective empathy. When having an important discussion, one that may lead to an outcome we care about, it’s crucial to understand the emotions that accompany it:

  • what does the other person feel about the situation in general? What the other feels related to the topic is often a cocktail of emotions. Knowing Maria, you can imagine, for example, that she feels proud, but also overwhelmed by her new responsibilities; that she doesn’t want to disappoint; and that she stands strongly on her team’s side.
  • what is her present state of mind? If Maria is not a poker champion, you can figure out her momentary state by watching her closely. However, you must also discover her hidden emotions and understand what lies beyond the surface, because that’s the state you need to consider and address. You may notice at first the lack of her usual smile and a peculiar firmness in her voice, which may suggest inflexibility. However, with a bit of extra empathy, you can figure out that Maria is very emotional about her first discussion as a team manager and that she is hiding her agitation underneath a mask of exaggerated seriousness.
  • and (we rarely pay attention to this!) what is our own state of mind when we approach the discussion? It’s useful to also have an audit of our own affective state when we approach the discussion. It’s not easy, but a minute of introspection can reveal, for example, that the situation makes you feel uncomfortable, but optimistic that things will be better after this discussion. Or that you are marked by the discussion that you, in turn, had a few years ago with your own boss. Perhaps you are indisposed for reasons that have nothing to do with this subject, like in the case of a headache. In any case, you need to assess your own affective state, as it will greatly influence the result of the discussion.

Empathy for values. People look at a situation through the lens of a single value. And when the other argues from the perspective of another value, the conversation is a dialogue of the deaf.

Jonathan Haidt describes in his book, The Righteous Mind, that any situation can be perceived through the perspective of one of six different values (he calls them moral foundations). It’s important, in a discussion we care about, to identify the value the person in front of us bases their position upon. And, if we want to have influence, we need to adapt our argumentation to that axis. For example, if Maria has built her attitude based on loyalty to her team (the Loyalty/Betrayal axis), she will not be moved by your argument, based on fairness (the Fairness/Cheating axis), that it’s unfair for another department to work overtime in order to fix the errors of her team. What you must do to make yourselves truly heard is to change your argumentation to the same value axis (in this case Loyalty/Betrayal), appealing, for example, to Maria’s loyalty not only towards her team, but towards the whole organization.

Cognitive empathy. To convince someone, it’s necessary to understand how they think. I wrote last month about how we cannot convince someone to get vaccinated if we don’t understand what their anti-vaccine conviction is based upon. Cognitive empathy doesn’t mean we have to agree with the other’s perspective, but simply to understand it profoundly.

How can you do this? The simplest method is to ask. To ask Maria why she is reluctant to offer feedback to her team. The question must not be asked from a position of control or moral superiority, but rather like an objective journalist. And, after every question, you must really listen to the answer. I know it seems obvious, but often we don’t listen to the other, we just prepare our own response in mind and wait for the other to stop and breath so we can intervene. I plan to write about active listening in a future article. You will know that you understood Maria’s perspective when you are able to reproduce it to her in such a way that she says, “that’s exactly what I think, thanks for understanding it so clearly!”

If you understand, in important discussions, what your partner feels (but also what you feel!), what she thinks, and what value she builds her position upon, you have more chances to convince her and to enhance her motivation and commitment. It is not easy, but it’s definitely worth it.

A version of this article appeared in Revista Biz.

I also talked (in Romanian) about three types of empathy with Andreea Roşca, in a short podcast, available here:

Spotify –

Apple Podcasts –

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