Debriefing the meeting with Steve, he thought he should have been more aggressive with his Japanese suppliers, telling them very precisely what he wanted from them, and telling them he felt offended by their non decisiveness. John wished he had been more assertive.
One week later, John received a call from Japan. The Japanese supplier was very thankful about the presentation he gave them and greatly appreciated that he took so much time to meet them. The supplier added, no decision has been taken yet, but they are greatly interested in working with John on the project. John felt thankful and asked them when they would consider entering a contract. The Japanese supplier told John he should not bother too much, but Japanese decision-making takes time. It was great that he could meet everybody in person.
Apparently, John has been successful, it is only a question of time. How did he actually behave with his Japanese counterparts? He did not let too much his judgment ruling over his behavior. He was genuinely interested in the way Japanese people work, think, as far as he could. He clearly stated he understood some of their habits, highlighting similarities. He showed empathy! Now how could have it turned out, had he been more assertive? He would probably have shown some unwanted disrespect and would have been perceived as pushy, aggressive. The Japanese culture being high contextual and requiring long get-togethers to establish trust, the supplier would probably have denied any further step on the project.
Being empathetic enables high quality relationships based on trust. Especially across cultures, showing a genuine interest to get to know and understand what others do, how they do things, maybe how they feel, showing empathy means decreasing defensive negative energy. Empathy means enabling trustful relationships. It helps positive creative energy to rise to create deeper relationships, enable innovation and change.
For all these reasons, empathy is also important in developing cultural sensitivity and leading in an environment shaped by diversity. Developing a genuine interest in relating with others, understanding others, being with others is a critical process to be accepted and successful across cultures and in a diverse environment.
Taking the perspective of someone else, stepping in their shoes, understanding how they see things and how they may feel, this can be trained as mentioned above and is anytime rewarding. But it can be hard work, depending on people’s personality.
Many people, especially in a management position and in a stressful environment tend to be directive, bossy, assertive. They tend to react to situations rather than they respond to them. They may think assertiveness is empowering them, giving them power. It actually drains their positive creative energy and fosters defensive negative energy and behavior.
We are all too often stuck in a situation where nothing else than assertiveness and aggressive behavior comes up, especially when stress and pressure is high.
We need to stop there, take the time to step back, to take a breath. We need more self-awareness. Self-awareness is key to shifting our focus, our energy, our way of relating with others. Being self-aware makes us free from overconfidence, anger or shame. It enables us to be authentic. Being self-aware enables us to stop listening to our judgment and start listening to others. Listening to others in a nonjudgmental way, showing interest and genuine curiosity in other, how they think, how they feel, this is showing empathy. It sets positive creative energy free for both ourselves and for the others.
Self-awareness detaches me from my close-minded perspective where I am taking from others; it opens me to a new perspective, where giving to others is rewarding. When the oxygen in a plane drops, breathing masks drop down from the ceiling. The instruction is to take the mask yourself first before helping others put their mask. Helping yourself enables you to be helpful to others. Similarly, self-awareness makes us free to be generous and empathetic. Knowing who I am, what I think, how I feel, what I need enables my mind to free itself from judgment and enables me to step up in others’ shoes. I am ready to learn, I am open for receiving from others and giving my full attention to them. I am ready to be empathetic.
These lines are aligned with a framework introduced by Daniel Goleman (e.g. 1998) defining Emotional Intelligence with five elements: Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, Social Skill, Empathy, and Motivation. Emotional intelligent people are ideally self-aware people, who understand their own emotions. They are self regulated: they don’t let their feelings govern them. They possess developed social skills, supporting others to develop and thrive. They are empathetic, understanding and identifying with what others want, need, think, feel. Eventually, they are motivated to achieve long-term success.
Additional support that empathy can be learned comes from the field of Neuroscience. Brain imaging studies support the hypothesis that mirror neurons play an active role when a person is empathetic. Mirror neurons are said to be responsible for our cognitive and emotional connection with other persons. The cortical mirror neuron system enables us to reproduce actions after observation, to imitate. Learning by observation, demonstration and then duplication is possible thanks to the connections mirror neuron establish in our brain. We can imagine, intend, anticipate, and emotionally reconstruct what we observe without actually having the experience ourselves. The replication/learning could be established for observed actions, but also for emotional responses: mirror neurons may enable us to mirror/copy the feelings of others, to “put ourselves in other people’s shoes”, to be empathetic.
Neuroscience supports that we all have the necessary mirror neurons to show empathy. We can all learn empathy. As Marco Iacoboni and Roger McHaney (2009) put it:
Humans have a tendency to empathize, and leadership awareness of this tendency will allow more meaningful connections to emerge in the workplace.
Coming back to assertiveness, as a leadership skill and positive communication style, being assertive is being confident and direct in expressing opinions, wishes, ideas and concerns. Assertiveness is standing up for self, but with consideration to others, being respectful of other people’s personal boundaries and emotions. Assertiveness requires a high level of self awareness and a continuous inquiry to find the right balance between, on the one hand, being considerate and respectful of other people’s feelings, and on the other hand, being considerate and respectful of our own needs. Assertiveness requires a certain level of empathy. A great leader is able to reconcile both. Depending on each situation, a great leader will find the right balance between being positively assertive and being empathetic.
In a coaching situation, the coach is positively assertive since he is guiding the process. Confidence, honesty, respect, clarity and direct communication are required for coaching to be effective. The coach expresses appreciation, encourages, supports, invites and listen carefully to his client. One of the major skill of a good coach is of course to be nonjudgmental and deeply empathetic. As we learned, empathy fosters trustful connections, increases the level of positive creative energy and facilitates change.
Good coaches know about the importance of showing empathy for their clients, listening powerfully to them. Whenever judgment comes in place, whenever suggestion or advise arise, the coach is becoming overly assertive. Self-awareness for a coach is critical to successful coaching. Through continuous training in self-awareness, being mindful to self, and being supervised as a coach will increase the probability of staying empathetic and adequately assertive.
When a client shows concern about being too assertive, the coach may encourage the client to reflect more deeply on his behavior in the specific situation. What was the situation? Who was doing what? What were the motives in place? How was the client feeling? etc. Letting the client describe consistently his behavior will bring his full awareness on it. The coach may then ask how the client feels, being better aware of his behavior. How does his energy level feel like?
Using the power tool described here, Empathy vs. Assertiveness, the coach will challenge the clients’ perspective. He could ask: How would it be, if you would be in the other’s shoes? With the eyes of the other, how would the client assess the situation? How would he feel then?
Ideally, a shift in perspective will occur, challenging even more his past behavior. The coach will help the client then analyzing further the situation. What new possibilities arise? What could be done from there? What does the client now need to do? What will he do from now? The coach also assists the clients with identifying the needed structures to support the implementation of the intended actions and checks his commitment to make the changes identified.
The coach will also be wise to use the power tool further, and inquire how the client is feeling about using empathy more often. How far does he intend to use empathy in the future? Does he want to change behavior and become more empathetic? Does he need any support there, maybe from the coach himself?