Does he really "lack empathy"?

I was on a call with a dozen coaches a few weeks ago, discussing a situation in which a male manager of the team was having difficulty relating to how one of his female colleagues was feeling. A more traditional fellow, he appeared more comfortable with data and facts than with feelings. We were exploring how each of us might approach this situation as a coach.

Some of the coaches talked about how it seemed this man lacked empathy. They thought he had “blind spots” which he was going to have to address. They were also concerned about how he might feel when he realized that everyone around him thought he was a jerk. Since he was an older white man, there were a lot of assumptions about his attitude being negative towards people who were different than himself.

I had a different take on the situation. It seemed to me that he was a man who had achieved his position by putting his feelings aside, and there was some value in that approach too. Perhaps he really didn’t have any reference points which could help him understand his colleague better. But, I felt it would be a mistake and a disservice to him to say that he lacked empathy. Because for me, the problem wasn’t that at all. I felt that his challenge was adaptability to change.

In a very short number of generations, the work world has changed dramatically. Diversity has skyrocketed. Approaches for doing business have transformed. The types of conversations that are considered “professional” have expanded. At the same time, radical cultural shifts about gender and race are fully underway.

On top of this dramatic social change, we’ve been challenged by changing environmental conditions and a worldwide pandemic. 

And let’s face it: some people are faster to adapt than others.

For me, this man was behaving in old ways in a new context, and to label him as “lacking empathy” was completely off the mark. I felt that if he could see the risk of not adapting to a changed context, he would certainly try to learn new skills ~ such as how to respond when conversations hit unfamiliar territory.

As I spoke, the judgments and assumptions of the people on the call were laid bare. One pointedly asked if this was my authentic voice because my perspective was so deeply empathetic and non-judgmental. (It was.)

I left the call that day remembering a truth: that labeling each other negatively is often counterproductive. Interpretation is everything, and we are always free to see others as perfect, whole, and complete ~ even when they are different than we might hope or understand.

To your success,