Scaling Empathy: How to Empathize with the Whole

I spent a day at our orientation teaching an entire class of incoming MBAs. A day later I was in a different part of the country leading a business school faculty through their yearly one day retreat. I taught both groups the fundamental state of leadership. I came to the third question in the framework, “Am I other focused.”

I explained the power of empathy. Then I told the story of great public school teacher who learned to practice empathy for each of her students. When she first started she pointed out that “every child is unique” and “you have to learn the needs and interests of each one.” This took considerable effort and turned her into a good teacher. As she continued to grow she made a discovery and moved to “the next level.” She said, “I learned they are all the same. No matter what they say or do, every one of them wants to succeed, wants to be respected, and wants to be loved. When you break this code you can teach any one.”

In moving to a higher level of mastery she had learned to “scale” empathy. She discovered how to practice empathy for the whole. Once she did so her influence skyrocketed.

Trying to help the two groups understand the story, I said something to both groups that I have not said before. In essence it went like this; “This morning I spent a lot of time preparing to be with you. I did not spend much of the time on content. Instead I spent the time preparing me. I put myself into a state of love for you.”

“Now you are saying, ‘That is ridiculous, you have never even seen me and you do not even know who I am. You cannot possible love me.”

“You are wrong. I spent time with you without ever meeting you. I was empathizing with the whole. I asked myself these questions; who are they? What you are they excited about?   What do they fear? What are their deepest interests and highest needs? Then I determined to shape everything I did to the answers.”

“Doing this work was much more important than organizing my content. You see I am not interested in being an expert who distributes information. I live to inspire positive change. To do that, I have to have your trust. For you to trust me, you have to feel my genuine concern. When I am addressing the deepest needs and interests of the whole you feel it. You know I am giving what you usually do not get, content wrapped in love.”

In both cases people were really listening. They were hearing an unusual message that made sense. Great influence is based on the ability to love. Love can be elevated. It can be moved from a focus on the one to a focus on the whole. When it is elevated, the higher needs of each individual can be touched simultaneously. Trust goes up and human learning is accelerated. The probability of change increases.

Reflection

When I have consciously practiced empathy for a person, what happened?

When I have consciously practiced empathy for the whole, what happened?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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