The Dos and Don’ts of Empathy

The day the River Thames was flooding my home, I was at a birthday party. Perhaps unsurprisingly I was not my positive, social self. In fact, I believe I was probably pretty miserable. An hour into being terrible company, someone approached to ask what was wrong.

“The river,” I said. “I’m pretty sure we have about six inches of it in our house now.”

Her reply came quickly, without thought: “Well, at least you’re not in Somerset.”

Somerset – for the non-British among you – is a low lying in Southern England that was also flooding at the time and getting a lot of TV coverage. But water is water. And when you get it in your house, it doesn’t matter much whether the press is there to watch the destruction.

Sadly, bad things that happen teach us lessons in empathy. But somehow, we struggle to translate the empathy we wish people would feel for us to appropriate empathy for others. I like to think that the trials I have gone through in my life have made me an empathy expert. But then I see myself tongue-tied – or even worse – lacking in patience or saying utterly the wrong thing – when others need my support.

So, as much as a reminder for myself as for others, here are the lessons around empathy I have learned from my darker moments:

  1. Really listen: There are tell-tale signs. You say hello. They say hello. You start talking about something or ask a question. Then they jump in and talk for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, more – clearly unhappy, and sometimes about something completely unrelated to where the conversation started. This is the indication that you need to block out all the voices in your brain that are thinking about what you’re making for dinner and listen.
  2. Avoid comparisons: Comparing their challenge to something you have gone through, or worse, the TV equivalent, can never end well. Even when actively listening, extroverts like me tend to understand people’s challenges by thinking about something similar they have been through. Don’t talk about that. This isn’t about you, it’s about them. Take that understanding you have about the situation and respond the way you wish people had responded to you. Show them you get it by the questions you ask. Even “I don’t know what to say, that sounds really hard,” or “It sounds like this is really difficult,” is better than saying “I know what you mean, when I lost my dog I felt like that too.”
  3. Don’t disregard the situation as not important: Sometimes people come to us needing support and we just don’t see what the trauma is about. Don’t they realize that things could be much worse? Why is this work issue such a big deal? Why do they feel lonely? Afraid? How can they feel sad when they have a beautiful, healthy newborn or a promotion or a new house? So what if they lose their house, aren’t they grateful to have their husband and child? Someone recently told me that grief is localized. It’s all relative. If someone is opening up to you, it’s real for them. This is a chance to give a gift of empathy. Don’t try to explain why they shouldn’t feel the way they do. Don’t disregard their challenge as insignificant. This isn’t your challenge, it’s theirs. What they want is someone to listen, and to understand that for them, right now, this is difficult.
  4. Don’t sugarcoat: When someone comes to you angry, upset, sad, needing empathy, it is a good time to take off the rose-colored glasses. A person going through something difficult doesn’t necessarily want to look on the bright side. They want to be heard. “That sounds really difficult for you,” or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” go a lot further than telling them the sun will come out tomorrow.
  5. Don’t try to problem solve: Many of us are paid to solve problems. We are good at it. But in a conversation like this one, the solutions may need to wait. And once it is the time and place, brain research tells us solutions and insights are better off coming from the person who is going through the challenge, and not from us who are supposed to be listening. So save the advice, and ask questions instead. Play back what you are hearing. Help them know they are heard and that what they are feeling is legitimate.

I have yet to find someone with a perfect life. No matter how many great straws we draw, there is always one that is the shortest of the lot. And in the relatively bad times, we all need those supporters who will help us through. I hope the next time I’m given that opportunity, I apply these lessons instead of reflecting on them after the fact. And the next time I need empathy, I wish for the same.

Working Effectively in a Matrix Organization

Agile. Streamlined. Connected. All of these words are being used to describe the goals of organizations as they moving from a strict command-and-control top-down hierarchy to one that is more nuanced. Often the resulting organization is one that is called a “matrix.”

Matrix organizations can bring big business benefits. According to a 2011 survey by the Corporate Leadership Council, business units that are effective at collaboration outperform those that are not on both revenue targets and employee engagement. And according to PGi, collaboration with those outside the team results in 35% greater innovation and creativity. But what is a matrix and what can be done to help ensure it is effective?

A Matrix Organization, Defined

By definition, a matrix organization is one that facilitates the horizontal flow of skills and information. Historically, this structure was used for management of large projects or even product development processes, allowing companies to draw employees in from different disciplines to work together without shifting the formal reporting lines. With the shift into the Social Era, however, and the need for faster, more agile structures and higher levels of collaboration, more companies are shifting to this matrix model as their primary organization design.

Employees in a matrix organization generally have at least two “reporting lines” or directions of responsibility. One focus is with a horizontal organization, who usually manage projects, products or business units across departmental boundaries. The other is a more traditional, vertical organization, usually with a department head, where employees report on their overall performance. The horizontal structure, where reporting lines are less formal, are often identified as the “matrix” and it is in this organization that things can get a bit messy.

Building a Matrix Community

To be effective in a matrix structure, organizations need to build a real community that connects the team of people who are working together from differing parts of the business. Regular communication is key to the community’s success. Here are five additional steps to maximizing a matrix organization’s effectiveness:

  1. Identify a community manager: Matrix organizations imply reduced formal hierarchy but that doesn’t mean roles and responsibilities shouldn’t be clear. The most important role in a matrix community is the community manager – a person to bring the community together and take a lead in the coordination. Depending on the business or organization, this is often is a product manager, area segment lead, or someone who feels they have high co-dependency across the group. This person does not need to be in any formal leadership role.
  2. Co-define purpose and goals: To maintain energy and commitment across your matrix, you need to have a shared purpose and goals. By bringing the group together and defining this early on in the community’s existence, you get increased engagement from the matrix team members. What value do people see from this community? What can this team achieve by coming together?
  3. Plan for regular connections: It’s easy to let matrix community meetings slide when formal hierarchy demands are competing for time, but regular communication and connection is essential to a matrix organization’s success. Even if you feel you don’t have anything to cover, it’s worth meeting briefly to see what emerges from the community. Often an empty agenda allows concerns and questions to emerge that otherwise may have been left unspoken.
  4. Reach collective agreement: In so far as possible, matrix organizations should be trusted and empowered. Shared accountability leads to increased levels of trust. The community manager should practice leading from the back – allowing members of the community to step up and lead in areas where they have passion and energy. The most effective matrix communities tap into members’ energy and passion, leveraging the virtual team to own and drive initiatives.
  5. Focus on principles, not rules: Given the importance of tapping into community members’ passions and empowering your virtual team, it’s probably not surprising that your matrix will be more effective if you concentrate on establishing guiding principles together instead of detailing exactly how results should be achieved. This isn’t to say you should relax expectations – it’s fine to be very clear and precise around the end goals that are expected from the community – but then allow for flexibility and creativity around how these are achieved. This freedom gives space for innovation, greater levels of engagement and deeper commitment from all of the matrix.