There’s a meme on how lobsters grow
by shedding their rigid shell and producing a new one.
It points out that before it can grow,
a lobster feels stress against their shell.
Thus, the moral of the story is:
1) Treating stress as a problem to be solved is to prevent growth.
2) Stress can be a sign of growth.
What it skims through, though,
is how lobsters need a rock
to protect itself from predators
before it can shed its shell.
So if our client, employee, boss, or partner
seems to be unwilling to let go of their shell,
or to grow & innovate,
the question isn’t “Why are they being so rigid?!”
It’s “Do we have a rock in place?”
Let me know if you’re willing to be a rock.
One day, a 92 year old man asked his 62 year old son.
“Son. What bird is that?”
“A magpie.” answered the son.
Few minutes later, the old man asked again.
“What bird is that?”
“A magpie, dad. A magpie.” answered the son.
Few minutes later, the old man asked yet again.
“What bird is that?”
“I just told you! It’s a magpie!”
“I see.” nodded the old man.
Few minutes later, the old man asked
“What bird is that?”
“Oh my God! You deaf, dad?! I just told you!! It’s a f@$in’ magpie!”
Mother, who’s watched the scene unfold
remarked with a teary gaze,
“When you were a child,
you used to ask your father the same question
over and over again
Would you be willing to bear one day?”
Derivation source: youtube
Here’s a pattern I’ve observed repeatedly in my work.
If we think someone “lacks empathy”,
chances are good they think the same about us.
CEO thinks employees lack empathy.
Employee thinks CEO lacks empathy.
Doctor thinks patients lack empathy.
Patient thinks doctor lacks empathy.
Consultant thinks client lacks empathy.
Client thinks consultant lacks empathy.
Husband thinks wife lacks empathy.
Wife thinks husband lacks empathy.
It’s always the “other” that lacks empathy.
The challenge of leadership is to realize empathy first
instead of expecting others to do so.
And by “realize empathy,” I don’t mean be nice, kind, or altruistic.
I mean be willing & able to create unexpected meaning, value, form, and identity
Difficult, but possible through guided practice.
Designers have worked with resistance since the dawn of time.
The first caveman who drew on cave walls
were met with resistance from those walls
and leveraged it as the very means through which they created.
Whenever someone behaves in ways we interpret as “resistance,”
all it means is we’re struggling to create.
What human interaction designers do with resistance
is leverage it as the very means through which we create.
Until we learn this art,
we’ll feel nothing but frustration & resentment
in our attempt to bring about innovation in our interactions & organizations.
Guess what lies at the heart of this art?
Our willingness & ability to realize our empathy.
We often confuse direction with command.
A direction implies an invitation to look, to yearn.
A command implies a demand to do as told, to comply.
The two are significantly different.
Yet, we often confuse the two,
thereby refusing to direct,
sometimes assuming that it violates autonomy.
The opposite is often the case.
Autonomy without direction is often a recipe for overwhelm.
He does what he does,
for the good of others.
Just as caregivers & leaders unintentionally hurt others,
while merely trying to solve these others’ problems,
so does he.
In his pursuit to fulfill his need for balance,
he also hyper-empathizes with humanity
and assumes that they, too, desire to fulfill this need.
This is a fallacy.
To reckon with this fallacy
and to connect with the present need of humanity,
he has to see them in the eyes.
He has to be willing to realize his empathy directly,
not through imagination,
but through conversation,
which he never does.
Why would he?
After all, he cares.
He has good intentions.
Many of us think that’s enough.
Why would he think different?
Those of us who value contribution habitually ask
“How can I help?”
Sometimes, this masks the tiny voice inside us saying
“I need help.”
Asking for help can be difficult.
Especially when we tend to play the role of “helper.”
When we empathize, we enter a space of inter-being,
a being other than “self” or “other.”
A space, where, instead of separating roles like
“helper” vs. “helpee,”
A space where we need not try so hard to help,
and yet, the other feels helped,
and so do we.
It’s not always easy to enter this space, though.
That is until we meet someone willing to realize their empathy
A chance we may only have
if we’re willing
to ask for help.
Imagine two circles: self & other.
Not empathizing is them separated,
Empathizing is them intersecting,
Hyper-empathizing is them overlapping.
When we hyper-empathize,
we lose any boundary or distinctions between self vs other, and
our sense of identity becomes significantly affected.
This can be good or bad.
A mother throwing herself to save her child
A business owner who feels like a failure
because her company was a failure,
and kills herself,
is hyper empathizing.
It’s important we learn the ability
to notice when hyper-empathizing works against us, so as
to choose another way of being.
Let us not unwillingly fall prey
to the whims of others.
“What has happened since our last session?” I asked.
He’d been feeling bad for his employees.
He felt like he was failing them.
With guilt on deck, underperforming employees fueled his resentment.
He was spending so much time and effort trying to be a better leader,
being understanding and supportive of them.
They, on the other hand, were not.
“I confessed my guilt to my employees.”
“What do you feel right now?”
“What did you learn?”
“That all this time I was hyper-empathizing instead of empathizing.
That to empathize, it’s not enough to understand.
I also have to be honest with myself and others.”
Empathizing is not merely about others.
It’s about the relationship between ourselves and others.
Let us not forget ourselves.
Join me to learn how.