This One Word Is Ruining Leaders’ Ability to Be Empathic

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Oct 6, 2021

Empathy is, in essence, seeing the world or a situation from another person’s viewpoint. In Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, the moral guide, defines empathy for his daughter by saying, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” 

As simple as that sounds, however, in practice empathy is actually a bit tricky. Imagine you’re talking with a friend whose employer is going through tough financial times and layoffs. Your friend tells you: “I’m not sure I see any future in this industry.” You respond by saying, “I hear you, but you’re going to make it through this.”

Was Your Response Empathic?

This is an actual question from the quiz “Do You Know How To Listen With Empathy?” And based on thousands of responses, about a third of people think that is empathic. But they’re wrong..

Our friend disclosed their feelings of anxiety and doubt, and while we said “I hear you,” we also instantly told them that they shouldn’t feel troubled. We conveyed that sentiment when we used the word “but.”

The word “but” tells others, “I’m setting aside everything you just said so that, instead of talking about your issues, you can focus on what I have to say.”  

During a client study, I observed a CEO for a few days. One of the measures we tracked was how often he said the word “but” during executive team meetings. His executives would offer an idea to improve efficiency or customer service or whatever, and he would routinely say something like, “That’s not a bad idea, but…” or, “Yes, but…” During one meeting, he literally said that word more than 50 times (to be honest, I stopped counting at 50). Each time he said “but,” the energy went out of the room. And by the time that meeting was over, the CEO was the only person still speaking.  

In our study, The State Of Leadership Development, we discovered that only 26% of people say that when they share their work problems with their leader, the leader always responds constructively. Meanwhile, if someone says their leader always responds constructively when they share their work problems, they’re about 12 times more likely to recommend the company as a great employer.

Stop Talking

How can you train leaders to be more empathic and respond more constructively? Start by teaching them that, when they’re listening to others, after they say the words “I hear you,” stop talking. Teach them that they can’t say “but,” they shouldn’t keep talking, they should just say “I hear you” and cover their mouth.

The word “but” forces us out of listening mode and into talking mode. As soon as we say that word, we’re delivering some reason why the other person’s thoughts are wrong and what they should be doing instead. And that’s the opposite of empathy; it’s the antithesis of considering things from another person’s point of view.

Ironically, when you’re teaching empathy to your company’s leaders, you shouldn’t burden them with detailed scripts. Empathy is more about not saying things than it is about saying specific words. Empathy requires sitting with what the other person just said, considering their thoughts and feelings without immediately trying to figure out what to say next. Empathy takes practice, but once mastered, it’s one of the most powerful tools a leader has.