In February 2015, the world of social media was abuzz, alight and a’twitter—especially a’twitter—over some dress some woman wore to some wedding in Scotland.
Many people thought the dress, or #TheDress, as the garb was dubbed after a picture of it spiraled viral, was white with gold stripes. Others thought it was blue with black stripes. The controversy pitted Instagrammer against Snapchatter, celebrity against civilian, sister against brother, West against East.
And even West against Kardashian.
“What color is that dress?” Kim Kardashian asked her 85 gazillion Twitter followers. “I see white and gold. Kanye sees black and blue. Who is color blind?”
Turns out neither.
No, no one was color blind. Or blind blind. Or part of some vast, left-brain conspiracy. The dress, which was in fact blue and black, simply looked different to different people due to the way the human mind, via the human eye, processes light, and—more importantly—how it handles optical ambiguity.
Now, of course, the dress—sorry, #TheDress—isn’t the only example of two people looking at the exact same thing and seeing the exact opposite thing. Happens all the time. In marriages. In politics. In marriages. In economics. In marriages.
And in in business.
(Oh, and in marriages, too.)
Let’s talk about you. If you want to reach your potential as an executive, you absolutely, positively, unequivocally must be able to empathize, to see something from another perspective. You may have heard the metaphor of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Well, that’s cute but incomplete. Grossly so. Shoes are something external to the body, the mind, the soul. (Unless you’re my wife.) A better metaphor is putting yourself in the other person’s skin, to see and hear and breathe they way he or she does.
Absent this ability, you will never be able to inspire people to achieve greatness, lead them into battles big or small, or even negotiate a deal to the satisfaction of both sides.
It’s odd that something so crucial to the success of companies, as well as to the individuals inside them, is discussed so sparingly. Business tends to be a macho game, you see, what with its sports metaphors (“Time to get this deal across the finish line!”) and grunt-able, monosyllabic slogans (“Just. Do. It.”). In this environment, there isn’t much use for the sweet, balletic science of empathy.
But there should be.
Silence is Gold
If you find yourself in a hole, as the old adage goes, the first rule is to stop digging. And as a corollary, if you find yourself in an argument, the first rule is to stop talking and shut the #[email protected]% up. Persuading isn’t like pounding a nail; you can’t just smash and bash your way to success. It is instead a delicate and fluid art, an intellectual aikido if you will, where strength comes instead from a lack of resistance.
And that starts with listening. Like really listening. Not listening for the other person to take a breath so you can counter-punch with a fusillade of forensic firepower. Not listening so you can finish his or her sentences. Listening, rather, to understand and ultimately to empathize.
This is indeed the secret weapon of successful business people. They listen actively and they listen patiently. When the person they’re trying to persuade is talking, they shut their yaps and open their flaps, as in ears.
And to get the other person to do likewise, all you have to do is say are these magic words..
Nothing, and we’re talking nothing, stops a debate faster and more decisively than agreeing with the other person. The phrase “you’re right” is the elephant gun of modern discourse. Boom. Fire one round and it’s over.
True enough and ironically enough, if you want to convince someone to your way of thinking, you have to first agree with his or her way of thinking. Or at least validate it. You will instantly go from pulling on opposite ends of the rope to pulling on the same side. And until you’re in that position you can’t, and once you are in in you can…
Get Their Fingerprints On It
In the history of humankind, do you know whose ideas were universally lauded and applauded? Nope, not Socrates’s. Not Marcus Aurelius’s. Not Steve Jobs’s. Not Bill Gates’s. Not Elon Musks’s. Not even Jesus’s. For folks the world over, regardless of age or race or creed or culture, the most popular ideas of all time have come from one person.
In the theater of persuasion, this is the crescendo moment. This is what empathy is all about, literally becoming the other person and seeing you and what you’re proposing from his or her perspective.
Hey man, it’s all very like (inhales deeply, strokes chin), you know, cosmic and Zen and stuff.
You’ve shut up. You’ve listened. You’ve “you’re-righted” your way to a cease fire. You’ve emphasized. You’ve validated the other person’s perspective. If your idea has merit—you’re not starting up a cock-fighting league or anything, right?—it should be easy to find common ground.
Or more aptly, communal ground. As in shared. The great empathizers in business are the ones that make you feel their idea was in fact your idea all along. It’s not manipulative; it’s persuasive. You’re just trying to match up that person’s experience and perspective with the value in your proposal. Take some tidbit from your conversation, a comment made by the other side and weave it into your thesis.
It may sound corny, and beware, it will if you’re all sleazy and slippery about it, but using the other person’s ideas to lend credence to your own is about as bulletproof as it gets.
Now, back to that cock-fighting league…