Learn How Using Empathy Gets The Ultimate From Your Team


“There are a lot of negotiators that really will give in on a deal because being understood is more important than getting what they want.” Chris Voss, the FBI’s former lead hostage negotiator said.

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In fact, the first thing master-negotiator Voss teaches is you need to empathize with your counterpart on the other side.

Say that again? Voss was negotiating with kidnappers and terrorists, and he said empathy is the most important thing?

How on earth can you empathize with a terrorist or a kidnapper?


My goodness. Empathize with killers? There just is no way you can do that. Here’s the thing about empathy.  

  • Empathy doesn’t mean you agree with where the other side is coming from, but…
  • Empathy does mean you try and show the other side you understand where they are coming form.

That’s a huge difference. Because the other side will be willing to communicate with you if they believe you understand them.


And why will a terrorist, kidnapper, or an employee believe you understand them?


Let’s say you go the extra mile. You truly make the effort to understand the other side. Then you will be able to explain the other side’s feelings and position in their words.

And your employees will feel empowered when your employees know they are being heard. I’ll get back to this point later.

And that’s why empathy is a business superpower. And I’m not just talking about in salary negotiations or customer contract negotiations.


It turns out that empathetic leaders are the most effective leaders. 


I’ve worked for four CEOs in my career. Only one of the four was an empathetic leader.

He truly cared about the people working for him. And he tried to understand the people working for him too.


And you could see the CEO’s sincerity was genuine.


The CEO went out of his way to make sure his team was taken care of. He cared about everyone that worked at the company whether you were the lowest level employee or a senior executive.

Now, you’re probably thinking this empathetic CEO was a wimp.


On the contrary, the empathetic CEO was as tough as nails.


Arguing was encouraged. Sometimes the arguments were really heated.

But there was safety in the environment because there was empathy. And that’s what allowed us to argue so strongly for our positions.

Empathy is about being heard. And it’s especially important that your team know they’ve been heard when you disagree.

That will give your team the power to come back to you and tell that you’re wrong. That’s right. You want your team to tell you when you’re wrong.


Your superpower empathy gives your team the courage to debate and challenge you. And that’s exactly what you want.


You want to build the best company possible. And the startup culture that gives your company the best chance of success is a commitment culture (for more, read: Why Your Startup Culture Is The Key To Your Company's Success).

The commitment culture is all about your team enjoying what they are doing so much that they never want to leave. Your team has a much better chance of staying together if they feel they are being heard.

In other words, you’d better be empathetic if you want to build a great team that will stay together through thick and thin.

Empathy is the glue that always your diverse team to flourish.


Slack’s CEO, Stewart Butterfield is a big believer in the power of empathy. "When we talk about the qualities we want in people, empathy is a big one," Butterfield said.

"If you can empathize with people, then you can do a good job. If you have no ability to empathize, then it's difficult to give people feedback, and it's difficult to help people improve. Everything becomes harder."  Stewart Butterfield, CEO, Slack

You can’t fake empathy.


Years ago, I worked for a CEO that was polar opposite of the tough, yet empathetic, successful CEO I talked about earlier.

You’d read in interviews with the CEO about how he considered the employees all part of his family. You’d read about how much he cared about everyone that worked for him.

This CEO showed, in ways big and small (down to making salaried employees take time off for doctor’s visits), that he was the only person he cared about. The results were predictable:

  • Employee morale was low, which led to…
  • High employee turnover, which led to…
  • A company that underperformed the market, which led to…
  • The CEO eventually having to sell his company

What can you do to improve your empathy skills?


It seems simple. All you have to do is listen.

Being empathetic is a lot more than just listening. Listening is just the start. I’ll start with some don’ts:

A.  Don’t interrupt. Let the other side talk. Men especially have the really bad habit of interrupting.

I know I am constantly fighting my urge to interrupt someone. You know what works for me? Sitting on my hands! Somehow or other sitting on my hands triggers my brain to not interrupt. Then…

B.  Make eye contact. Look directly at the other person if you are face to face. Don’t let yourself be distracted.

Don’t surf the net or let yourself be distracted if you are having the discussion over the phone. Stay focused on the other side. Then…

C.  Listen some more. Really make sure the other side has said everything they want to say.


Now, for my most important piece of advice…


D.  Don’t give any advice. Men are especially bad at this. I thought I was a really good listener early on in my career.

And maybe I was. But I used to blow it by giving advice right after someone had poured their heart out to me.

That’s not what the other side wants or needs. The other side needs to be heard.


No matter how well intentioned your advice might be it does not signal that you really understand someone.


How does someone know they’ve truly been heard?


Let’s go back to master negotiator Chris Voss. Voss outlines a whole sequence you should follow in his fantastic book, Never Split The Difference.

I highly recommend you read Never Split The Difference, but I’ll do my best to summarize how you can indicate to the other side that you hear what they are saying:

A.  Start by mirroring. Use the language your employee is using to explain their problem. Mirroring indicates that you are really listening to what they are saying. Then…

B.  Add in non-definitive statements. Use phrases like “It seems like” when you are trying to form tentative conclusions. And then, the most important part…

C.  You have to really care about your team. Voss’ steps for effective communication are simple enough. However, you can’t just say the words. You have to believe what you are saying.

You can’t fake empathy. But, you need to master empathy if you and your company are going to succeed.

The best CEOs understood that being empathetic doesn’t mean you can’t be tough and demanding. In fact, being empathetic is the secret sauce that allows you to push you and your team to incredible success.

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