Empathy Versus Perspective-Taking and Personal Change

June 13, 2013

By: Ryan W. Quinn


Originally posted on the LIFT Blog

One of the stories that Adam Grant tells in his book, Give and Take, which I have been discussing in recent blog entries, is the story of a businessman from Australia named Peter Audet. Peter had built up his business with the help of his partner, Rich. The two men worked well together early on, but eventually Rich began taking a massive salary without working much. He poisoned the culture, took money for his home out of the company account, and also had a line of credit with the company that no one knew about, all while buying a massive home on the Gold Coast. Because Peter had a close relationship with Rich, for a long time he felt unable to take action against him. He felt like Rich was his older brother. As Adam Grant points out, Peter was a victim of his own empathy.

The Down Side to Empathy

I find the idea that people can be victims of their own empathy a fascinating one. Empathy occurs when one person shares the feelings of another. In Lift, we argue that empathy is the essence of being other-focused, and therefore a central element of positive influence. A person’s influence is unlikely to be positive if they have not felt empathy for those who are stakeholders in a situation. And yet Peter’s empathy for Rich—in particular, his worry about how Rich would feel if Peter took action against him—prevented Peter from doing the right thing in this situation.

Peter eventually overcame his reticence. As Adam tells the story, Peter did so by focusing on what Rich was thinking instead of on what Rich was feeling. Rich seemed to be more interested in developing new entrepreneurial opportunities than in running the business. So Peter asked Rich to let him run the company, and offered to let Rich work on special projects to generate new revenue, reporting to Peter at the end of 90 days. Rich agreed. His special projects went nowhere. Once Peter had evidence, Rich left the company and took his equity out of the company as well. Company performance and employee morale skyrocketed as a result.

The Need for Empathy

The story of Peter and Rich may lead people to conclude that they should focus on what’s going on in other people’s heads instead of what’s going on in their hearts—otherwise empathy may turn you into a doormat. Some evidence exists to support that view, Grant states, including research by Adam Galinsky on how people who feel empathy when negotiating tend to end up with the worst deals.

But rejecting empathy is the wrong lesson to take from his work. In fact, a closer reading of his book and the research he cites suggests that empathy is the foundation for most of his claims as well. “Givers” do not achieve success without empathy. In fact, people cannot be givers without empathy. And if people do not feel empathy when they give to others, then the other people are likely to perceive the giving as insincere. No relationships will be built, not reciprocation will occur, and much of what we value in society would simply cease to work. We are social beings because we are empathic beings.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Perspective-Taking

The alternative to empathy that Galinsky offers and that Peter Audet used was perspective-taking: understanding what people think, rather than what they feel. When I teach the concepts of Lift, and particularly the concept of becoming other-focused, I often contrast empathy and perspective-taking explicitly. It is possible, I argue, to completely understand another person’s point of view and still not feel how they feel. Further, if you do not feel how they feel, you will not lift them.

Perspective-taking can help us find ways to prevent others from taking advantage of us. Sometimes first understand what they think can even help us feel empathy. But if our understanding of what they think never passes into understanding how they feel, then we can never achieve the level of sincerity and authenticity necessary to make ourselves believable and persuasive. Aristotle understood this when he wrote Rhetoric, thousands of years ago. We need to empathize with our audiences or our influence will always be limited.

The Answer to the Puzzle

This raises the question, then, of how we can experience the empathy we need to be a positive force in any situation when that same empathy can make it possible for others to take advantage of us? Adam tells another story that helps answer this question.

An MBA student lost most of the negotiations in which he participated. Yet when it was time for him to negotiate his salary after his MBA, he negotiated an astounding compensation. He did it by changing whom he was negotiating for. Instead of negotiating for himself, he negotiated for his family. He still felt empathy for his new boss (who offered him much less than what he eventually got). But he also felt empathy for his wife and children. Research also suggests, it turns out, that when people who are high in empathy negotiate on behalf of others instead of on behalf of themselves, they tend to win much more in their negotiations.

We talk about this concept in Lift by using the term “stakeholders.” The question we suggest people use to become other-focused is “How do others feel about this situation?” This question has two key words. One is “feel”—focusing on feelings can help us experience empathy. But the second key word is “others.” “Others” is plural. It implies there are always more people influenced by a situation than just the obvious ones. If I feel how all the relevant stakeholders feel, and allow my empathy for all of these stakeholders to influence my actions, I will understand the stakeholders better, and I will not sacrifice one stakeholder’s interests for another’s.

Beyond Protecting Ourselves

The story of Peter and Rich is a story of how to prevent people like Rich from taking advantage of us. It is important to know how to do that. We are as entitled to positive results as any other stakeholder we encounter.

Sometimes protecting ourselves from those who would take advantage of us is the best we can do. And if that is the best we can do, we should do it. When possible, though, I think it is worthwhile to have a loftier goal: to invite and inspire those who are taking to participate in giving instead. When I think about Rich, I feel sad that the story ended with no change on his part, only a departure. I think about the joy and meaning Rich is missing because of his self-focus. When I feel empathy for him, I feel sorry for the hollow part of his life that he may not even recognize until he is on his deathbed and sees what his priorities have brought him. Empathy, from that perspective, is unlikely to make me a doormat, but it may move me to be tough on Rich with the intent to try to inspire him to something better.

I realize that this may seem naïve. I acknowledge that in many cases we can invite and inspire all we want, but people will still not change. I also acknowledge that some changes take a long time—longer than is appropriate to invest in business settings. But I have also seen situations where people who seem like takers change overnight because what we thought was an indelible part of their personality was actually just a reflection of the situation they were in. The change began, ironically, when people, for the first time in that setting, felt empathy for them.

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