The Quality of Empathy


People sometimes come across as pushy to other people. Other adjectives that get used, depending on intensity, are overbearing, forceful, dominating, aggressive, bullying and spoilt. Impressions get formed in a number of different ways. For now, let’s look at the impression that gets formed in conversations.

A conversation consists of two (or more, but at a point of time, usually two) people. There are ideas to be shared, agreed upon or not and then moving on to other things. Conversations are negotiations of a manner. Negotiations need not all be confrontational or aggressive. We talk about negotiating paths through traffic and crowded spaces, after all. It’s about moving forward, sometimes stepping back, turning, making detours where necessary and going through in some cases. The purpose of a negotiation is to the find a way for everyone in the situation, to get to where they want to be. When do conversations run into dead-ends and result in one person being seen as pushy? I’ll leave that question hanging.

I have heard some people carry such an impression about the Landmark community (its employees, leaders, volunteers as well as its graduates). In the past, some people who have attended guest sessions have come away put off by the aggressive pressure to sign up for a program. Of note, I haven’t heard any of these people actually disagree with the value of the program or its ideas. But the perceived pushiness of the people they’ve spoken to, has put them off, in some cases permanently. I know these have caused strains in relationships and a halo effect on anybody who says they are Landmark graduates. And I’ve had to sometimes say,

“Just because you don’t like the salesman’s face, don’t assume he’s selling a bad product.”

In recent times though, Landmark has moved to a different way of doing things. As a company, in its programs, a key distinction is being made on the kind of conversations that turn people off, rather than forward everyone concerned. At one of my seminar events, I watched a guest have a conversation with my seminar leader, Hari Kotian. She was polite, articulate and seemed a little intimidated by the proceedings. But she went on to explain where she came from, very clearly. This is what I heard (paraphrased from memory):

“I consider myself a spiritual person. I want to better myself and I look for programs that help me work on this. I believe if I make myself better, it will benefit the world. You spoke very well. I thought you were very engaging and powerful. I also think that this program involves setting goals external to oneself and how to achieve them. It is achievement, focus and target based. So I think it is different from what I want to do, where I would like to be.”

I thought this was an abstract as well as personal thought, difficult to articulate to a stranger; even harder for someone intimidated by the situation. She needn’t have even tried, since a guest session cannot actually compel anybody to spend their money registering for a program. She was under no duress to explain her actions to anybody. Yet, she felt inclined and able to do this.

I was also watching Hari during this conversation and he exuded a sense of empathy, of complete openness and even warmth. I’ve known Hari for several years before he became my seminar leader so I know that he brings this wonderful thing to a conversation. You get the sense that he really, really gets you. Talking to him feels like you’re talking to a friend, to a trusted family member even. There is intelligence and comprehension but also a wonderful sense of empathy that emanates from him, which makes it possible for a person to come out with whatever they are thinking, regardless of how it will be received.

As the leader of the seminar, Hari would have his goals to meet, in terms of registrations. But his commitment is to deliver a program that impacts and forwards people’s lives, not just fill up the numbers on a sales quota. I am also not saying that these two goals must be mutually exclusive. Being a successful seminar leader involves delivering good programs sustainably (to an adequate number of people). In the conversation with that lady, Hari brought the kind of open empathy that was untainted by other considerations. The conversation ended with the lady not registering then but keeping an open mind to thinking about whether it might align with her objective, rather than oppose them. I’d say Hari left her with a sense of being able to make a case for or against the program, for herself. Decisions and commitments that we make for ourselves are far stronger than ones that we are pressured into.

I find this a solid case of leading by example. It was a conversation between two people wanting seemingly disparate things. But because Hari showed her the willingness to look into her world and understand her context, she felt willing to do the same with him. It ended with both people moving forward in their respective ways, with no negative baggage and with possibly some value added because this interaction happened.

This minor incident has had a profound impact on me. Empathy is an undervalued thing today. It is not seen as a ‘must have’ form of behaviour, even less as a powerful way of being. But having been witness to the above makes me think,

In my every interaction with the world, can I truly say that I have added value? To my own life and to the surroundings and the people in it?

This is a bit of a holistic thing rather than the competitive belief that epouses the ‘me first/no one else’ policy. But even from that extremely result-oriented point of view, there is a strategic gain to the holistic approach. What matters a minor ‘win’ when a valuable no-win interaction can lead to a stronger association and hence longer-running and stronger wins?

At a personal level, I can choose to push someone into a situation, risking resentment, opposition and non-cooperation, all things that become roadblocks. Or I can stand at every minute for a shared space, a context of empathy, a reference that allows for the validity of your point of view and mine. It probably takes longer and may be harder, given our me-first conditioning. But it seems to be the richer alternative.

And finally, here’s how it plays out within my own life. Yesterday I attended a small literary event. None of the people who usually drive it, were able to be there, so I’d promised to do it as one of its long-running, active members. Possibly because of festival season (or some other undetermined cause) fewer people RSVP’ed. We actually had to take a call on whether to call it off, keeping in mind my restricted mobility on account of the fracture too. Then there were last minute cancellations, including one from from a friend I had invited. He cancelled an hour and half prior to the event, after an urgent client request brought workload in. I was tempted to pitch a fit, I really was.

But instead, I chose to stay in this learning. I remembered that he had been up till 3 a.m. the previous day, preparing a written piece for the event – a surefire indication of his wanting to be there. I tried working with him to see if it was still possible for him to attend by moving around other commitments. It turned out he had already tried doing that and it still wasn’t possible. So I took a deep breath and wished him luck on his project and completed the conversation.

If I hadn’t done that, I would probably have spent my auto ride there fretting and starting the event in a bad mood. Instead, it occurred to me to ask people on my networks if they’d like to attend. Of the people who showed interest, three turned up for the event, even on that short notice. The actual event still had a small turnout but was cosy and intimate. And the community (which conducts these events regularly) has 7 new members as of this morning. I had a great day. I think that’s a win!

The quality of empathy is definitely something I’m standing for, now.

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