I once had a job where I was “spoken to” because I was too calm.
A VP came up to my desk and proceeded to detail the latest crisis. This was punctuated with gestures and more than a few f-bombs. I listened to him, took notes, and then said something along the line of: “Okay, I’ll take care of that.” He looked at me and walked off.
A few days later a manager took me aside and sheepishly admitted that he was asked to speak to me. The VP was not happy with how I handled the situation. I was confused. Had I not done what was required? Was the outcome not good? Were all parties concerned not satisfied.
Well yes, but apparently I was too calm. And yes, I had done everything…except freak out.
Now, I was really confused.
I was a 20-something when I was in this job, so that will partly explain why my response was something in the ballpark of: “so you are telling me he wants me to “fake it” for him?”
One word: yes.
I worked in many jobs since that one and faced many “crisis situations” and I have learned the value of why my outwardly calm demeanour might have given the VP the wrong impression…even though my actions in getting the job done said otherwise. I can appreciate that people want to know that they are not only being heard, but also that they are being understood.
What I learned throughout these experience was the value of empathy.
Empathy is a big deal. Empathy is the missing piece in many unfinished puzzles left lying around on the conference and lunchroom tables in the workplace.
However, there is a fine and precarious line between being empathetic and faking it. And there is any equally subtle difference between wanting people to care and wanting people to be a mirror to your emotions.
What I experienced back in the example that I opened with was not a situation that called for empathy. You see, you can waste time trying to understand and walk a mile in the shoes of someone who has no use for your soft skills crap – what they want is for you to “get” that they are a big deal and that you need to act accordingly by making an equally big deal. And they are not bothered in the least whether you are faking it for them…it’s all about the show.
However, in my experience, most people are looking for the real thing – that want to know that you have heard what they are saying, that you understand and that you are demonstrating this in some way. And this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the same emotional response that they are having to actually connect with them.
Empathy skills can be learned, but more importantly they need to be practiced in order for them to be genuine. Oh sure, you can always fake it, but you would be doing both the other person and yourself a disservice.