Jim’s Wisdom #22 March 24, 2021 The Ingredients of Decency: Empathy * * * Introduction, and a Warning For as long as I can remember, the definiti

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Jim s Wisdom 22 Empathy

Jim’s Wisdom #22

March 24, 2021

The Ingredients of Decency: Empathy


Introduction, and a Warning

For as long as I can remember, the definition of empathy had to do with understanding people’s feelings, the so-called notion of, “putting yourself in the victim’s shoes.” From the beginning of my practice more that 40 years ago, I began working not only with the perpetrators but the victims. I wrote a book about this in 2013, “Lukaszewski on Crisis Communications.” This book was written to sensitize those who deal with tragic situations that empathy and apology are the two most powerful ingredients of a modern crisis response plan. In the book, I argue strongly that we must junk this old mistaken, and frankly selfish concept of empathy and replace it with a new definition that is relevant to the victim’s world.

The warning part of my message in this newsletter is this: persisting and trying to put yourself in the victim’s shoes, is an ethical blind spot on our part and an extreme irritant and agitator to victims. It’s really very simple, if someone lost a daughter to an accident you’re involved in, and let’s say you lost a daughter some years ago, even in this case, you cannot, in speaking to the victims, or the victim’s representatives say, “I know how you feel.” This simply will never be believed by the victims or their survivors. Furthermore, it is self-serving because it makes us feel good but causes anger and bitterness in the victims and the survivors.

In my experience, your response to a human situation can be technically and legally perfect but if you bungle the empathy and apology part, all your past good work, deeds and actions will be forgotten, and you will be remembered as a bungling responder. These two aspects of every crisis must be gotten right the first time.

Listen carefully, empathy is about doing things that matter from the victim’s perspective and allowing these actions to speak for themselves. We are so eager to pile on the public relations when we do something good it makes us look, because we are, disingenuous. In fact, I would go so far to say that much of the good works that are done, and the COVID-19 situation is a prime example, we sound as though we are happy there is a crisis, people are injured or dead so we can talk about it. Empathy is actions and behaviors that are clearly more in the interest of the victims than us and generally will speak louder than words can describe. I’m hoping this paper will clarify the distinction that needs to be made when talking about empathy. I reviewed several studies about empathy, and they are all frankly bogus and created to favor the perpetrator in these circumstances much more than help the victims, if at all.

A Better Definition of Empathy

According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), research shows that empathetic workplaces tend to enjoy stronger collaboration, less stress, greater morale, and employees bounce back more quickly from difficult moments such as layoffs. Still, many leaders struggle to make caring a part of their daily management activities.

Empathy as defined in this HBR article is wrong, “The ability to share and understand other’s emotions at work.” A limited search for articles on empathy on Google identified nearly 200. About 80% of the articles stressed management’s need for becoming empathetic but used the wrong definition. Half the remainder criticized the lack of empathy skills in management. The remainder warned executives not to be taken in by, as one commentator called it, “a sissy strategy.” Crises according to this latter group of people is the wrong time to, “show weakness.” Reporters have stumbled onto an unsettling, insulting and stupid comment rather than asking a first question.

It’s the phony observation that, “I can’t imagine how you feel or how you deal with this.” It sounds helpful but it’s the reporters talking about themselves. It’s one of those negative approaches that expands a five-figure settlement into six-figures. Also, quit asking “What I can do for you?” The victim is suffering an extraordinary tragic situation, and you’re asking them to somehow come up with solutions when they can’t figure out the reason why they are in the situation they find themselves in. An empathetic response is to suggest things you can do and offer these suggestions to be accepted or refused. In some cases, you may even want to move ahead with empathetic activities, but it is wiser to get the victims or the survivor’s permission first.

I did try this older approach, early in my career as a senior trusted strategic advisor, but my work with victims demonstrated that using this approach was not all that helpful.

You and those you work for will find this article very interesting: Managing the Victim Dimension of Large-Scale Disasters

My early attempts involved developing lexicons of compassionate language my clients could use where empathy seemed important. One of the first I called, The Lexicon of Compassion. It was an attempt to express compassionate thoughts candidly. Here’s an early Lexicon of Compassion:

The Lexicon of Compassion (Circa. 1984)

Vocabulary You Can Credibly Use in Times of Stress, Uncertainty, Fear, Doubt and Victimization

• Alarmed
• Appalled
• Ashamed
• Concerned
• Devastated
• Disappointed
• Disheartened
• Embarrassed
• Failed
• Humiliated
• “Let you down”
• Mortified
• Regret
• Sad
• Shocked
• Sorrowful
• Sympathetic
• Tragic

Avoid these adjectives that are truly self-serving and offensive to victims:

• Unfortunate
• Unhappy
• Unintentional
• Unnecessary
• Unsatisfactory

I found that executives were reluctant to use this kind of language because it was so emotional. One of the lingering and unfortunate tenets of management is that showing compassion or apology is a sign of weakness (mostly in the eyes of other senior executives and their peers, even some shareholders.)

As my understanding of victims grew, victimization and leadership operating environments that created victims, crisis, layoffs and reorganizations, change, uncertainty, fear, and doubt, it was clear that trying to put oneself in someone else’s shoes approach is of very little value. Victims are absorbed in their victimization. Their personal preoccupation with their problems made them intellectually deaf to much of their life. In addition, well meaning, compassionate language, suggesting other courses of action and decisions are looked upon by those afflicted as interference, invasiveness, efforts to control or dominate and increase their fears, questions, and doubts.

The lesson increasingly was that no matter how sympathetically one behaved or talked, it was impossible to genuinely put yourself in someone else’s shoes. These efforts are always viewed as insincere and are often seen by victims as justifications for having caused their pain in the first place.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words Ever Can

I don’t remember specifically where, when, or how, this bit of wisdom came to me, but it was a redefinition of empathy that turned out to make a great deal of sense while being truly useful and helpful. I have worked in many Western cultures during my career as well as several native cultures and they all seem to have a wonderful and helpful notion expressed in the phrase, “actions speak louder than words ever can.” This is empathy.

I translated this to mean, “doing was far more helpful than saying.” In other words, let your deeds speak for themselves. I quickly learned that this was anathema to the public relations profession. We never seem to be able to do anything or facilitate anything unless we talk about it. This conforms to the older definition of public relations, “do good and take credit for it.” It is the taking credit part that gets in the way of true empathy. One of the reasons for this is that we taught our clients that doing good and taking credit for it will insulate them against those times when they do something silly, stupid, hazardous, unethical, illegal, or wrong. If these things happen, they generally become the permanent new reputation.

The problem with the “taking credit” strategy is that it allows our clients to think this is a viable approach to reputation protection. Ask any victim, you’ve done something to threaten their health and safety, their family, their livelihood, traditions, or beliefs they cherish, not even a large check promptly written will satisfy their pain and suffering (although it can certainly help.)

I once had a client, a large Midwestern company who made a family of recreational products. The founding CEO was passionate about Little League baseball, to a fault. He had this company provide outfits and equipment for Little League teams in each of the 14 states where this company did business.

One day there was an accident during which three children died and a couple dozen were seriously injured. I advised him that he needed to make a public statement to comfort and take responsibility for what happened. He did do that, but first he spoke of his company’s support for Little League baseball and gave some very impressive numbers about equipment, clothing and other support for these teams. In the audience of this press conference (held at the company’s headquarters), unbeknownst to my client, were two of the mothers of the children who had died.

After the president finished his opening statement and asked for questions, one of the mothers stood up and asked him, “just how many players jerseys was her son’s death worth?” My client tried to answer the question. It was a mess. Somehow, he thought that the audience would interpret his good deeds (from his perspective), as good deeds they should accept from their perspective. No way. This is so often what happens when we try to put ourselves into the shoes of others, for any reason.

What Victims Really Need

Victims generally need four things:

Validation - tangible recognition that their pain and suffering is real and not phony. If the perpetrator fails to validate the suffering, that’s when lawyers are hired, support groups are formed, social media attacks begin, and other creative disruptions occur.
Visibility - people suffering want to talk about their pain and those who caused it pretty much all the time in the early on. Help them find platforms and places to talk even if the victim says bad things about you, which they certainly will.
Vindication - the perpetrator takes public credit for any actions undertaken to prevent similar circumstances from occurring in the future, thus denying the victims the chance to claim credit, causing more anger and anguish.
An Apology - which I define as the atomic energy of empathy.

Failing to recognize these needs or ignoring them prolongs the problem and the mutual agony the perpetrators and victims suffer.

Empathy is doing good and letting the good speak for itself

The power of empathy is that the actions and deeds speak louder than words, if you let them, in any language.

The problem for the PR person, and the manager seeking cover, or the corporation wanting to look good, is the second part of the definition: let the good deeds speak for themselves.

Translation: Take Action then Shut Up

Give your good deeds and your empathetic commitments the chance to speak for themselves. Doing something is always more powerful than saying something.

Give empathy a chance.

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Successfully Injecting Decency into Business Culture and Life

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“The true test of civility is a commitment to verbal, written communication and actions that are positive and declarative and behaviors that are simple, sensitive, sensible, constructive, helpful, empathetic and benefit the recipient far more than the sender.”

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“The Decency Code is a much-needed antidote to the prevailing incivility we see in both the workplace and the nation. Harrison and Lukaszewski plot a practical approach to regain civility, integrity, and empathy in our relations with others. This is a must-read for leaders, investors, employees, and engaged citizens generally.”

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