Leadership Lessons from a Horse’s Mouth

Today’s guest post is from June Gunter, Ed. D. and CEO of TeachingHorse, LLC.


I am the Co-Founder and CEO of TeachingHorse, LLC. TeachingHorse provides leadership development and coaching through experiential learning with horses. Working with horses, people learn how to build trusting relationships, practice authenticity, and remain calm and confident in the face of uncertainty.

Several of my clients are on the path of becoming trusted advisors. Their work with horses has been a great way for them to practice developing intimacy and reducing their self-orientation.

Most of the clients I work with do not have issues with credibility or reliability. They are skilled experts with long track records of success – but they are staring squarely at a new reality. The complexity of the issues they are being asked to address is unprecedented. The information available to them is unreliable and changes quickly. The demand for innovation means that previous performance and expertise are only the equivalent of an entry fee and will no longer win the race.

It is the capacity to create trusting relationships that is often the defining factor in selection of both leaders and advisors.

Enter Horses

So what do horses have to teach leaders about being trusted advisors? To begin with, horses don’t care if you have an RN, MBA, MD or have CEO after your name. Horses will never ask you if you have reputation for being dependable or reliable. So we can just take credibility and reliability out of the equation for now.

For horses to place their trust in leaders, they must know four things about them.

  • One, that leaders are paying attention, and can detect even the most subtle shifts in the environment.
  • Two, that leaders can give them clear direction on how to respond to the shifts.
  • Three, that leaders are able to follow that direction with focused energy, providing guidance on the pace with which to respond.
  • Four, that leaders display congruence of their inner and outer expressions. Ultimately, horses must know that the leaders have their best interest as their source of motivation at all times.

It all starts with saying “Hello.” One of the first things we teach is how to approach a horse in a way that creates confidence. It is a process of mutual decision-making that begins with taking a step towards the horse. If they continue to look relaxed and comfortable with your presence, take another step closer. If they look anxious or unsure, stop, take a deep breath to ground yourself, and then take a small step back. This reassures the horse that you are actually paying attention to the signals they are sending, that you are willing to respect their experience and make adjustments to honor their choice. With this simple process, the horse learns that you are not a threat.

Blue Leadership

One of the horses I work with frequently is a large white draft horse named Blue. She weighs about 2000 pounds. Blue is a fabulous teacher. In one particular session I was working with a board of directors for a healthcare organization. The participant saying hello to Blue was a petite woman, maybe 5 feet tall, with no horse experience.

As she began moving closer to Blue, I could hear her say tentatively, “Hi Blue.  Are we good?  Can I come a bit closer?”  I stopped the woman in her tracks and said, “What question do you have of Blue right now?”  She replied, “Is it safe for me to take another step closer?”

My reply to her was, “As long as that is your question, neither one of you is safe. It is not Blue’s job to convince you that you are safe with her. It is your job to show Blue that she is safe with you, just as if she was a patient in your hospital.”

I could sense that what I said resonated deeply with this person. Her energy changed completely. The woman lifted her head and squared her shoulders. You could feel the conviction running through her veins. At the same time, her eyes filled with respect, appreciation and love. She looked at Blue and said, “I got you girl. You are safe with me.”

Much to her surprise, Blue lowered her head, a signal that a horse is feeling safe, and Blue took the last few steps that closed the gap between them. With the woman’s hand now placed gently and confidently on Blue’s forehead, the connection between them created a palpable hush over the entire group.

I asked the woman what changed. She said, “I did.” And she was right.

As it turns out, this person is a gifted nurse leader. She tapped into a deeply held value that can get lost in the hustle and bustle of executive life. She moved her attention from self to other with a commitment to earn trust.

In the face of uncertainty, fear takes over when too much of our attention is on the self. Turn your attention to those you are leading or serving with a clear intention to act in their best interests. Trust will grow.


For more information about leadership development with horses contact June Gunter at [email protected].

An Unconventional Client Retention Strategy

Most people usually don’t think of empathy as having much business value. In fact, you might think if you start empathizing with your clients, you’ll lose your edge; you’ll appear “soft;” you’ll lose business. Here’s a compelling story* about a global firm that turned that conventional wisdom on its ear and transformed a big loss into a big win.

The News No One Wants to Hear

Once upon a time, a Midwestern U.S. office of a global accounting firm was informed by one of its major clients that the audit work they usually did would be going out to bid. The partners were shocked. “We hadn’t seen it coming,” one partner said, “and they were very clear that this was final.” As a nicety, the client gave them the opportunity to bid.

They brainstormed about why the client could possibly be unhappy with them. What had they done to get the boot? What might have been said at the meeting that resulted in this decision?

Once they had a pretty good idea what the issues could have been, they did something dramatic.

Sometimes Not Risking is Very Risky

Instead of using their 90-minute time slot to do a conventional presentation, four of their partners acted out a skit for the four client executives. They role-played those very execs having that decisive meeting.

They said things like, “Well, those audit folks just haven’t showed us that they have what it takes.” “That’s right, they haven’t been proactive enough.” They humbly and genuinely gave voice to the critical thoughts they imagined the client was thinking.

Unexpected Returns

“We were prepared to get yanked out of there in two minutes,” one partner said. “And, in fact, after five minutes, we stopped and asked them if they wanted us to stop. But they were fascinated; they asked us to keep going. And we did, for nearly an hour. We just kept talking—as if we were the client—about the things that we had done wrong and should have done better. And the client listened.”

Here’s the extraordinary ending to the story: the client rescinded their decision to put the work out to bid, and the firm got the job back. Why? Because they had been able to prove they understood their client’s concerns—in an honest and effective demonstration of empathy. They showed they had finally been listening. As a result, they won the right to try again.

The Business Value of Empathy

Seeing things from the clients’ perspective requires more than just taking good notes, muttering “I understand” from time to time, or periodically pausing to summarize the content of their communications. It means taking the time to tune into the tone, mood, and emotion—the music—as well as the words. It means reflecting it all back accurately and frequently. It means differentiating yourself by not just being the smart ones, but the ones who really get it—not just during the tough times, but all the time.

Bring empathy to the table from the get-go and your chances of getting a nasty unexpected surprise diminish greatly. Pull out all the empathy stops when things go awry and you dramatically improve the odds that you at least salvage the relationship, if not the contract.

Add empathy to your business toolbox and see what it does to help you gain and retain clients for the long haul.


*This and other compelling stories can be found in The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust

If I Were You…

Mike O. explains how he came to understand what it means to be a trusted advisor.


Getting It Right

I had been a consultant for many years. I had a good sense of what client service meant – that I should pursue the right thing for my client, rather than just what I thought was the coolest idea.

I had learned the importance of communication. You had to be clear on your thinking in the first place, then be articulate about getting points across. I knew about body language, about using graphics and not just data, and about dramatic presentations.

I knew all this was hard work and that even with good effort and skill, it was still not an easy task to persuade clients of what I knew to be in their best interest.

Then one day something happened.

Getting It Inside Out

I’d gotten to know Manuel reasonably well. We had spent time together “thinking aloud” and had gained respect for each other as thinkers.

We were talking about some business issue, I honestly don’t recall what. Toward the end he asked me what I thought he should do about a particular angle.

At that moment I was completely at ease. The job was going well. He and I got along nicely. It was a sunny day.

I knew the issue inside out. I knew what Manuel was good at and not good at, what he liked and didn’t like, and how he was likely to respond to the particular situation.

In that moment I could envision exactly what would work for him – while still from my perspective as an outsider. It was like being him, but without any attachment to either his limitations, or to my ego. I knew what would be exactly right for him to do.

“If I were you,” I began – and suddenly everything changed.

He leaned in toward me, relaxed, but focused and intent on what I was going to tell him.  He really wanted to hear what I would say next – and I knew he was going to do exactly what I suggested.

Now, I know how to read body language. I realized this had not happened before. Every other time I gave advice to clients, they leaned back or sat up straight; they stiffened their back, rather than relaxing. Their eyes narrowed, rather than opening up; they were preparing to evaluate what I had to say.

But Manuel wasn’t in evaluation mode; he was going to accept exactly what I said, and we both knew it.

If I Were You…

I realized later those words both triggered and expressed a new perspective. Until then, I had always thought of consulting as telling the client what I thought they should do. I was the expert, they were paying me to get my expert advice. I packaged my advice to maximize the chances they’d do the right thing.

But it was always me, advising them. With Manuel, for the first time, I’d gotten outside myself. I’d realized what I would do if I were him.

I no longer had to be me, telling my clients what to do. I could tap into being them, imagining what it was like, what would work, and what wouldn’t. All I had to do was imagine putting myself in their shoes.

I realized they really did want my advice – if I was a steward about it, really reflecting their take on things.  I became more careful about giving my advice, waiting until I not only had the facts and the problem straight, but had a chance to empathize with the client as well.  That way, when the time came, I knew I could sincerely say, “If I were you…”

Consulting began to get a lot easier. I still had to do the leg work, the thinking, the presenting. But I no longer felt it was a struggle. I now know, my best advising comes when I’m able to put myself in the other guy’s shoes.


Thanks, Mike, eloquently said.

Intimacy: If You Can’t Say the I-Word, You Have the I-Problem

Many of you know about the Trust Equation – (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-Orientation. Trust research has shown that of the four factors, the one most associated with high trust scores is – Intimacy.

Recently I’ve spoken with two organizations – one in financial services, the other in professional services – that are uncomfortable using the word “intimacy” in a business context. They’d prefer something a little more, you know – business-ey.

Intimacy, they feel, is, you know, that other stuff…not appropriate…uncomfortable…you know…

The Intimacy Chicken and Egg Problem

This is not new. People and firms from those industries in particular tend to score high on Credibility and Reliability, with their lowest scores often in Intimacy. Still, I hadn’t put left and right together until recently. Here it is:

The ones who score low on intimacy are the ones who do not like using the term “intimacy.”

Which on the one hand is perfectly reasonable: after all, discussion of intimacy feels kind of intimate.

But on the other hand, it raises this question:

If you can’t talk about the I-word ­– how are you ever going to get better at it?

Intimacy: Not Just a Girlie-Man Thing

Intimacy, as defined in the trust equation, is related to empathy. The client of someone with great intimacy skills will feel secure, understood, and comfortable sharing sensitive information with the advisor.

By contrast, a professional with poor intimacy skills is not likely to get invited to the meeting in the first place – rendering the rest moot.

Way back in 1993, Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema wrote in Harvard Business Review about Customer Intimacy. Since then, a great many companies talk about “customer intimacy” as a very viable business strategy. Companies from such wussy industries as defense contracting and oil have focused on this concept.

Which raises the question: if the he-men who sell to the Marines and who work in the Awl Patch can talk about “intimacy” – then why can’t lawyers, accountants and Wall Streeters?

Fear of Intimacy

There’s no need to get all Freudian about this. I think the biggest reason for our fear of intimacy in the business world is related to our increasingly dysfunctional idea of shareholder capitalism. The common thread? It’s all not personal.

We have become enamored of Schumpeterian creative destruction – but really don’t care to look at the nuts and bolts of structural unemployment.  That’s a little too, you know, personal.

What’s the purpose of a company? You know, to make money. And what are people to the company? Resources. Human resources. Better yet, human capital. That’s what we’ve come to believe: the word “human” is the adjective, “capital” the noun it modifies. It’s not, you know, personal.

Why is intimacy a no-no for so many in business, while “customer intimacy” gets accepted? Because it’s not so personal, that’s why. “Customers” are collective abstractions, not unlike Mitt Romney’s curious assertion that corporations are people. We talk about “the” customer – but never about a customer.

When we can turn people into abstractions, treat them as categories suitable to be measured and analyzed, then we don’t have to treat them as personal. They can be “customers,” or “human resources,” or “strategic partners” – just not as individuals. Our ideology has let us conveniently dehumanize business.


The inability to deal with intimacy in business is tied to the inability to see business as personal. It’s the same cloth. The day we can look at a customer or an employee and see a human being – that’s the day we can begin to deal with intimacy in business.

Until then, if you continue seeing “intimacy” as socially inappropriate, you are willfully relegating yourself to less trustworthy status.

3 Minutes to Create a Great Impression

It was five months ago, but I remember it like yesterday.

I had given a speech for an important Fortune 500 client. The event had about 300 attendees, and I was one of several speakers.

The person preceding me overran his time, cutting 15 minutes into mine. That is rude to other speakers, and to the audience, who have the right to view an agenda as a promise. I never do that to others, and don’t like it when someone does it to me.

I let it throw me off a bit; I didn’t give my worst speech, but it wasn’t my best either. This bothered me for the next two days.

A Turnaround Impression

Until, that is, I received a card in the mail. It was from my client’s senior-most person in attendance, the host of the meeting I’d attended.  The card was hand-written, and clearly written by him (at least, that’s what I think).

It was personalized, gracious, and thoughtful.  If it was scripted, my compliments to the staff writer, because it felt very genuine to me. I was floored.

3 Minutes to Impact

It can’t have taken my client more than 2 minutes to write the card, perhaps less—though clearly he’d given it more than a moment’s thought.  Let’s say he gave it a minute.  That’s a lot of thought; and yet only a grand total of 3 minutes.

And remember, this was a client, sending me, the speaker/consultant a thank you note—I should be the one sending it to him!

Again—I was floored. And very touched.

Can You Find 3 Minutes Per Week?

How often do you encounter opportunities to send someone a note?  Let’s be conservative and say once a week.  At once a week, that feels like a pretty special event—there are only 50 or so per year.

That’s about one-tenth of one percent of your weekly time. What other three minute weekly activity could generate that kind of personal impact, make somebody’s day, reach out and touch someone so powerfully?

You Can’t Write an Insincere Note

And don’t tell me it’s insincere.  I defy you to sit down and write a thoughtful thank you note to a business connection and tell me you did it with a greedy scowl.  I don’t believe you’re that cynical (and I don’t even know you!).  And if you’re sincere, then the odds are very good indeed that your sincerity will come through.

I used to get occasional handwritten notes from the folks at Continental Airlines’ One Pass organization. Were those notes part of an organized plan? You bet. But insincere? No way—someone sat down and hand-wrote a note to me; that is an act of respect, and I felt it.  Are you listening, United?

Try it. Plan on writing a 3-minute note to someone next week.  Who will be the lucky recipient?  And how will you feel about it?

Write and tell me—I’d like to hear about it.

How to Convince Your Boss You’re Right

Your boss gives you an important job to do. You are good for the job, you know what you’re doing, and you’re clear about the right answer. And then–your boss won’t go along with it. 

Worse, you’re really qualified to make this judgment call. And your boss’s logic is goofy. His/Her reason boils down to ‘we’ve always done it that way,’ or ‘just do it by the book,’ or maybe just personal preference. Your boss won’t listen, just digs in his/her heels.   

And it’s getting really irritating.

What can you do to convince your boss you’re right?

Surprise surprise, there is no guarantee.   But you can dramatically improve the odds. Here’s how.

Convincing Starts with Right Thinking

You start by getting really clear on two ideas—in your own head.

Idea 1. You are not the boss of your boss.   Your boss is the boss of you. So if it ever really comes down solely to who’s got the power, you can hang it up. 

Deal with that.

Idea 2. You will rarely convince anyone—particularly your boss—that you are right, as long as that equates to convincing them that they are wrong. If “I’m right” rhymes with “you’re wrong,” you can also hang it up.

Are we clear? 

If so, then you’ve figured out that “How do I convince my boss that I’m right?” is entirely, 100%, the wrong question. Really—completely wrong. If you got sucked in by the title of this blog, then you have to do some re-defining of your objectives—right now.

Think about it. If your objective involves “I’m right” then you’ve got an ego problem. I mean, why is this all about you? If you’re a serious team member, shouldn’t the question be “what’s the right answer” rather than “who’s got the right answer?”

And if your objective involves “convincing someone else” then you’ve got a control problem. I mean, why should you assume the issue is one of changing someone else to think like you, rather than of creating new joint collaborative thinking?

Redefine “Convincing Your Boss”

Imagine—even though it’s extremely unlikely—that, just for the sake of argument—your answer isn’t fully perfect. And imagine, though equally unlikely, that you actually could convince your boss of the correctness of your flawed recommendation. That would not be the optimal ending, would it?

That’s one small reason for you to engage in a dialogue, rather than a wrestling match. But here’s a much bigger reason.

The Paradox of Influence

It turns out, one of the best ways to convince someone is to listen to them first. That’s the gist of what a world expert on influence, Dr. Robert Cialdini, has to tell us. If you listen to someone first, the tendency of humans is usually to reciprocate—which means, to then listen to you.

But this reciprocal listening must have a genuine quality about it. It can’t be just, ‘OK I’ll let you blab for a while as the price for letting me give my pitch, so let me just grit my teeth, OK off you go…”

It actually has to be a genuine act of respect. It has to come from true curiosity, not from a kit-bag of carefully pre-designed questions. You actually have to, for lack of a better word, care.

To Convince Your Boss, First Give Up on Convincing Your Boss

If you want to increase the odds of convincing your boss, first—give it up. Completely. Give up on the objective of ‘convincing your boss.’

In its place, commit yourself to an attitude of curiosity. Go ask your boss:

Boss, I know we’ve been cross-wise on this one. And you know what, I have to admit, I could, of course, be wrong. And if so, I probably don’t even understand how I’m wrong. So please, do me a favor. 

I would really appreciate it if you’d tell me all about how you see this issue—from start to finish. I want to completely understand how you come at it, and how you came to see it that way. I am truly curious, and want to know.

And that’s it. If all we do here today is help me learn from you how to think about this, it will have been a great day. Period.

Then listen. And plan to say ‘thanks,’ and walk away. 

Yes, walk away. 

Because if your boss has any interest in discussing your point of view, (s)he will ask you about it at this point. And if they don’t have any interest, go see Ideas 1 and 2 at the outset of this article, the part where it says they’re your boss, not vice versa.

Here’s the paradox. Assuming your idea really was pretty good, going through this process will considerably increase the odds of it being accepted by your boss. But only—only—if you are willing to completely give up your objective of bending another person’s will to the force of yours.

If you’re willing to give it up, you’ll increase the odds of getting it to happen.  The secret is: It’s not about you.

Everyday Empathy

I write about empathy a lot on these pages because it can’t be emphasized enough as a critical skill in business—and one that’s missing from most business interactions (See “The Great Empathy Famine”). Today’s blog provides some specific tips for how to make empathy commonly practiced instead of commonly absent.

Empathy is the Life Blood of Influence

Empathetic listening is the key to being influential. It’s not enough to be smart and well-researched and just plain right, even (especially) when you have the evidence to prove it. You have to earn the right to be right. Others will listen to you—be open to your advice, to your point of view, to your perspective—once they feel they have been fully heard and understood by you. And they really do have to feel it. Here’s another way of saying it: It’s not enough for you to “get” them; they have to get that you “get” them.

This is precisely where empathy gets left out of the usual business conversation, because “getting” others requires more than taking good notes, or periodically pausing to summarize the content of their communications; it means you have to tune into the music (tone, mood, emotion) as well as the words, and then reflect it all back accurately and frequently enough that you get some kind of cue that you’re doing a good job of relating to the entirety of their world.

Thomas Friedman nailed it when he said, “It’s not what you hear by listening that’s important; it’s what you say by listening that’s important.” Friedman was talking about empathy.

Your Empathy Workout: Low Weights, High Reps

We run a drill in our learning programs to practice what we call “Three-Level Listening.” At the end of this humbling little exercise, participants will invariably say, “OK, I see the value of empathy. And I also see that I’m not very good at it. How can I practice without risking looking bad with clients while I’m improving?”

I answer by first asserting that clunky empathy trumps no empathy every time (you’ll get credit for your efforts, your intentions, and your willingness to take a risk). And then I offer a simple tip: “Empathize with the grocery store clerk.” And the drycleaner. And the newspaper vendor. And the babysitter. Why? Three reasons:

(1)   The stakes are low. You’ll worry less about getting it wrong and you’re generally less likely to be reactive. (Empathy gets a lot harder when your C-level client has just informed you that she’s disappointed in your team’s results.)

(2)   The environment is target-rich. Most of us interact with service providers on a daily basis. And we need daily practice to build muscle memory. (When the stakes are high we especially need those strong muscles to triumph over our reptilian brains.)

(3)   (Bonus) You’ll make a big difference for someone. People in these kind of roles are used to dealing with complaints, not being related to.

What “Everyday Empathy” Sounds Like

Practicing everyday empathy requires that you first tune in—in other words, pay attention to all the data you’re getting from another human being. Then, try an empathetic turn of phrase. Here are some examples:

To the grocery store clerk who has a strained look on her face: “Looks like maybe you’ve had a rough day.”

To the cab driver who’s stuck in traffic and horn-happy: “I’m sure there’s nothing more frustrating than dealing with this mess all the time.”

To the mail carrier whose brow is moist in the mid-day sun: “I’ll bet there are days like today when you wish you had an indoor job!”

To the waitress who drops a tray full of dishes: “Bummer.”

To a Facebook friend whose status message says, “Hit a home run today!”:  “Congrats! You must be psyched!” (Empathy is called for in happy situations, too.)

Use your own words, of course. And use emotion words whenever you can (“frustrating,” “psyched”). While it’s true you might not get the emotion right, the risk you take to be in their world matters more. Plus you’ll likely get corrected, which just provides another opportunity to practice.

Bench Strength

With daily practice, you’ll be poised and ready the next time you’re given an opportunity to convince a client they should hire you, or sway an executive team to adopt your recommendation, or recover from a project failure.

Empathy is a big differentiator in the business world. With whom will you build your muscles today?

Why Nobody Cares About You, And You Should Be Glad They Don’t

Nobody cares about you. I don’t mean your parents, of course they do. And of course your dog. And your significant other, if you have one. Maybe even your kids or your siblings, though there’s no guarantee.   And maybe a great friend or two. 

No, I’m talking about all the rest. Your work team, your customers, your suppliers, your neighbors, your kids’ teachers, the gang at the gym and at church. The people you spend 85% of your time with, who make up 90% of the entries in your contacts database and 95% of the people in your LinkedIn catalog. 99% of your Facebook and Twitter friends. They don’t really care about you. None of them. Not really.

Basically, the vast majority of human interactions we have are with people who don’t really care about us.

And that, my ‘friends,’ is a wonderful thing. Here’s why.

My Life has Been Very Eventful: Some of It Actually Happened.

For me, almost all the stomach-churning fear and angst I have experienced in my life consisted of fictional plots hatched in the dark places in my own mind. They nearly always featured those 90%-plus people in my life. A huge chunk of my life’s emotional energy was spent on winning fictional arguments and fights with them—though now, finally, I spend a lot less time on that.

If only I could have realized more fully, earlier on in my life, the One Big Truth, how much more productive I could have been! And what is the One Big Truth?

They don’t really give a damn. Any more than I do about them. Oh sure I like interacting with them, most of them, most of the time. And I actually don’t think badly about hardly any of them—they mean well, mostly. It’s just that, I’ve got my own issues to worry about, and I honestly don’t spend that much time focusing on them.

And, surprise surprise, they spend about as much time focused on me as I do focused on them. Which is not a lot. And they probably don’t think any more badly about me than I think badly about them, which is not much. The main thing is: I just think about myself more than I do about them. And they do the same.

The Freedom That Lies in Realizing No One Really Cares

Again, I don’t mean we’re all selfish, mean-spirited people. But I do mean that we’re all pretty much wrapped up in ourselves. And that turns out to be an enormous, high-potential gift.

Because: imagine doubling the quality of attention you show to other people. Not even the quantity—just the quality.   No more time—just more connection.   What if you could really connect with your customer. Just for two minutes. For two minutes, to engage in a way that is not dominated by your desire to close the deal, to advance the sale, to get them to like you.

What if, for two minutes, you could actually care about them? About how they are feeling, about why they’re thinking what they’re thinking, about how it must feel to be them in that moment. 

What if you could offer the fine gift of your attention? 

What would happen if someone gave a damn about you for just two minutes? How would it feel? 

Pretty good, I think. And what does it cost? Pretty much nothing.

You Can Radically Improve Lives in Two Minutes a Day

Any time you want, you can stop the noise, get off the Bozo Bus, and reach out and touch someone. All it takes is the gift of your attention.

It seems to me that the reason we don’t give the gift of attention is that we are trapped in the fictional belief that we must gain the approval of others. Thus we are afraid of what they think of us.

The truth is: they can’t think good or ill of us if they’re not even thinking of us at all. Which means we are free—gloriously free—to share our attention. No one else is claiming it.

And if you give it away, you’ll get something back. It’s a universal truth.

Declare the obvious—your own freedom from the myth of others’ judgment. Then go use that freedom to fix your little corner of the world. You might even find that someone cares just a little bit about you.


When Empathy’s Not Enough

I remember a dialogue once about empowerment with several people. The general consensus was that empowerment was, generally speaking, a good thing.

One person, however, made a simple point. “It’s only as good as the people you empower,” she said. “If you empower stupid people, you deserve what you get.”

Fair enough. A similar cold-water dash in the face comes from Sam Bloomfield. The issue this time is the equally ‘soft’ and ‘good’ value of empathy.

What could be wrong with empathy, you ask? Well, not that there’s anything wrong with it, but there’s a danger of forgetting the ‘and also’ aspects. The correlate to the ‘stupid people’ problem with respect to empathy, Sam suggests, is the presence or absence of action taken:

A recent Harvard Business Review piece [Why Small Companies Are Better at Customer Service] addressed how large companies can learn about productive customer service from small companies. The article’s author related his personal experiences about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ customer service. The author concluded from those experiences that smaller companies have a lot to teach larger ones because the people in smaller companies can “empathize” with the customer and therefore deliver better service. And large companies need to learn to empathize more.

In fact, while empathy helps, it simply is not enough. The cited examples also showed, although not observed explicitly by the author, that smaller companies were able to resolve the problem – produce a satisfactory result for the customer. In the small company examples, the employee did not just empathize, s/he also satisfied our author. Those results I would suggest are the key to effective customer service and experience.

So empathy is fine – up to a point. When a customer service representative does not help you resolve your problem empathy alone loses its currency.

Also, large organizations trying to appear more empathetic often devolve into a ’script’ or canned responses like “I am so sorry” or “I apologize”. We simply don’t trust that they mean it, until we see what they can do for us. You can’t institutionalize caring, trust or empathy because those traits, if they are genuine, are not just words but sincere feelings. I would suggest that this customer in the article was ultimately really satisfied because of the actions taken.

Empathy, Sam’s suggesting, may or may not be a necessary condition, but it is surely not a sufficient condition.

He’s certainly right about one thing. On some level it’s obvious, and not surprising; there aren’t that many pro-empathy people who really think empathy alone is sufficient.

But that’s not the bigger problem Sam’s pointing out. That problem, I think, is businesspeople who don’t understand empathy, and who think that a little slathering of empathetic trappings can keep the customer complaints down.

As Sam puts it:

Large companies are usually effective at creating processes that standardize activities for large numbers of interactions with repeating patterns. But they often fail at creating a standard process for establishing a trusting and sincere relationship with their customers, the very foundation upon which rests all successful call center interactions. In short, one cannot create a process to elicit a sincere human emotion.

I don’t know about you, but it bugs me when a customer service rep leads with “Oh I do apologize for that, Mr. Green.” 99 times out of 100, the rep of course had nothing to do with the problem. It’s fine to say, “ouch, that’s certainly not right, and we’re sorry you had this problem—what can I do to help?” But don’t apologize!

Good apologies require some standing of responsibility. I don’t want an innocent bystander to apologize for hitting my car, I want the apology from the texting-cellphone-jabbering idiot that hit me!

There’s empathy, and there’s empathy.  The harm done is not using too much empathy—it’s using it badly, sloppily, and without clean intent.

Why Saying ‘I Understand’ Is an Act of Arrogance

Empathy symbolIn an episode of Two and a Half Men (a high-ratings US television sitcom), the rakish cad character played by Charlie Sheen discovers that he can easily manipulate others by solemnly saying to them, “I understand.”

When he first says it, other people believe him, and begin to gush their feelings to him. Of course, his empathy is faux, and so the comedy begins.

Empathy is Cognition Plus Connection

The best way to influence (not manipulate) others is for them to feel that you understand them.

Yet the key word in the preceding sentence is not ‘understand,’ but ‘feel.’

It is one thing to understand someone; it is quite another for them to feel understood.

A seller might perfectly understand a buyer’s needs; often, in fact, even better than the buyer. That doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that the buyer feels understood.

A consultant might perfectly understand what a client is going through, on all levels—including the deeply emotional issues facing the client. But even understanding the emotional issues of the client doesn’t guarantee the client will feel understood.

A common sales truism says, “People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.”

Just because it’s a truism doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  And it is, profoundly so.  The point of listening is not what you hear–it is the act of helping another feel heard.

Why Saying “I Understand” is Arrogant

On the face of it, the statement “I understand” is the perfect expression of empathy. Unlike Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen’s character in the sitcom), we usually mean it. We are sincere when we say it, so for me to suggest that ‘I understand’ is arrogant may sound insulting.

But think of it this way. The feeling of being truly understood is, by definition, something that must come from the one who is understood—not from the one doing the understanding. To assert that you understand how someone feels about their situation is to usurp their very role as object of the understanding.

It is not our right as advisors or sellers to tell someone we understand them; it is only they who can inform us that they feel understood. For us to make the claim ourselves is arrogant.

A Better Way to Express Empathy

We can never truly know another. All we can do is to guess at how we might feel in similar circumstances—and assume that they might feel likewise. The source of much tragedy—and comedy—comes from mistaken assumptions that others are exactly like us.

So, what is a better way to express empathy? How do we communicate, across the divide of individuality, a sense of connection with another? Here are a few ideas.

  • That must feel…
  • I can only imagine how that must be…
  • I suppose if I were you I’d feel…
  • Is that (difficult, easy, complicated…) for you?
  • I think I might have a glimmer of what that means for you…

The particular words don’t matter as much as a combination of sincerity and a respect for the ineffable separateness of the other person.

Ironically, the way to convey connection is to acknowledge the impossibility of fully achieving it.