Understanding and Living Empathy

Understanding and Living Empathy

For the past 15 years, I've been really focused on deepening my personal toolbelt when it comes to understanding and de-escalating highly charged personal interactions, and generally how to improve my own personal ability to understand and live with empathy for the incredible people in my life.

Fifteen years might sound like a lot of time, but I started way behind most people. I have a specific genetic sequence of the rs53576 gene called A,A which  impacts my ability to feel empathy in specific ways:

This has meant that I've had to be really intentional about understanding how I might see the world differently than others.

Here's what science has to say about those of us with the A,A gene variation:

"Individuals with one or two copies of the A allele (AG/AA) exhibited lower behavioral and dispositional empathy… Furthermore, AA/AG individuals displayed higher physiological and dispositional stress reactivity than GG individuals, as determined by heart rate response during a startle anticipation task and an affective reactivity scale." - 2009 study
"A recent study published by Shimon Saphire-Bernstein at UCLA provided evidence that people who carry the A version of are less optimistic and have lower self-esteem. In addition, brain scans have suggested that those with these genetic variants are less responsive to social cues than others as well.
"Distressed Americans with one or more copies of the G version were more likely to seek emotional support from their friends, compared to those with two copies of the A version." - Discover Magazine
"Aallele carriers had lower levels of psychological resources relative to G-allele homozygotes: t(324) = 3.07, P = 0.002, d = 0.36, R2 = 0.032. OXTR rs53576 appears to account for between 4.4% (0.016/0.360) and 8% (0.016/0.200) of the genetic variance in optimism." - More detail on that same UCLA study

What this genetic sequence has meant for me:

The way I see the world is, of course, normal to me, and I've never once felt low self-esteem, for example, although I do find myself having a harder time seeing social cues when others around me need an empathetic response from me. I have also had people tell me I don't ask for help, often because it simply doesn't occur to me to do so, and that may also be due to this gene sequence.

I understand logically that my reality may be different from those who don't have the A,A variation. Specifically, based on the reading I've done, I believe the differences may be that:

  • I'm less likely to ask for help when I'm in stressful situations. And in fact, even when I do ask for help, I don't get as much of an emotional boost from it as do people with other variations.
  • I may be less optimistic and have lower self-esteem than those w/ other variations (even if I don't feel that way myself)
  • Even as I ask for help less, I'm more reactive to stress than those with other variations.
  • I'm less responsive to social cues than those with other variations

How I've been using this knowledge to better understand empathy – and to navigate the world around me:

I believe we all have our personality quirks. Science is helping us understand some of them (like mine), but as a species we're still very early in our understanding of how genes and biology impact behavior. For example, free will may be just an illusion and logic may just be a rationalization created by the human brain to justify underlying emotions. For example this book on neurology states:

But at the end of the day, all of that doesn't matter when you have a person you care for (whether a partner, a child, a friend, a work colleague, etc.) sitting across from you, experiencing their reality with you. When the rubber hits the road, I have to take personal responsibility for the actions I'm taking in my interactions with those around me, and I have to understand how I might be impacting them in ways that differ how I would feel in the same situation.

I've come up with a series of tools in my "Interaction Toolbelt" to enable me to do this more effectively, and I'm sharing them publicly in the hopes some of them might also benefit others.

1) I believe (after a lot of time spent logically thinking about and exploring it) that business runs on relationships, and relationships run on feelings. This might sound touchy-feely but I've come to the conclusion that it’s the core of building trust – and my natural state is to not prioritize it enough. There's a great quote by Maya Angelou:

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

I really work to prioritize ensuring that I, and our entire company, can achieve what we call "Level 2" and "Level 3" conversations, instead of just staying at Level 1. Here's what defines these levels:

  • Level 1 conversations: General, operational, tactical, and even strategic work conversations. This is where work gets done.
  • Level 2 Conversations: I have feelings about me. About my performance.
  • Level 3 conversations: I have feelings about you. About your performance. This is the level that's really calling the shots.

Level 2 & 3 conversations are the deeper, much more personal conversations that help us understand what underlying feelings are powering our surface Level 1 conversations and perspectives.

Many companies do not have the psychological safety within their organizations to enable Level 2 & 3 conversations. They remain unsaid under the surface, but they are driving all the Level 1 interactions.

Here's how we illustrate it at Armory: (thanks to Cameron Yarborough for the original version of this slide.)

We specifically share with our Tribe that a best-practice at Armory is to keep "Level 2" and "Level 3" conversations off of Slack. This has been a game-changer for me as well.

2) My basic nature is to retreat to a cave when I'm confronted with a person who is highly charged emotionally. To keep me more engaged, I have a personal checklist I use to get past my reaction and try to validate the person's underlying emotions (thanks to Sandy Lillie for helping me define this and many, many other tools & support over the years.)

DROdio's "Responsive, not Responsible" Checklist:

1) We all arrive with the baggage of our own pasts.  
Remember that, and re-commit to the person in front of you, 
because the person they are today-- that you love & respect-- 
was formed through those experiences they had in the past.

2) Use understanding and fond acceptance to see past the emotions being presented to you 
(anger, frustration, etc). Those emotions are signals 
that what people are truly expressing is vulnerability and pain. 
Acknowledging those emotions doesn't enable them, or make them "right."
You don't have to agree with them to acknowledge them.

3) Validate the person by acknowledging what's important to them. Don't be afraid to apologize. 
Don't make the person *wrong* for being upset. 
They're not upset because you're "bad" (even if they say you are) 
but because their buttons are being pressed. 
You're not responsible for their level of sensitivity, even if the person says you are. 
Their emotions didn't *start* with you (as per point #1). 
One of our executives at Armory helped me title this: Responsive, not Responsible means that while I am not responsible for someone else's emotions, I do need to stay responsive to them.

I run through this checklist when someone's having strong feelings with me. When I do, I am literally picturing this incredibly powerful Burning Man sculpture in my mind (as per point #1 and us arriving to conversations with the baggage of our pasts):

3) I share with people the conflict-resolution frameworks that have worked best for me. I have a ReadMe for those coming to work for & with me at Armory to help them understand me as quickly & deeply as possible, vs. making them figure it out on their own. I also make it a point to be intentional about asking others "What do you need from me?" and "How can I support you?" even though those are not questions I would naturally ask.

3.a) Stanford GSB's "Action/Impact" framework, which was shared with me by Stu, one of our Tribals, has proven incredibly valuable for effective conflict resolution:

It’s easy to use “you” statements when communicating, like "You just don't understand the issue here." But there are several problems with “you” statements:

  1. Although we each may have a perspective on what another person is thinking/feeling, the only perspective we can be fully sure is true is our own.
  2. “You” statements remove the personal responsibility we each have to focus on what each of us can do to address and improve a situation.
  3. A “You” statement will often make the recipient feel like s/he has to defend their position to you, which makes each of you feel like you are on opposite sides of the table from each other, each staking out turf. In my personal life (and at Armory), we always want to remember we are on the same side of the table with those around us, tackling common tensions together. It’s the tension that’s on the other side of the table, not the person.

The Action/Impact framework helps keep communication nonviolent and empathetic. There are two parts to the “action/impact” framework. Let’s take this example that many couples can probably relate to:

The Action: Step 1 is to describe an action in a factual way:

When you arrive home late without calling to let me know ahead of time, I don’t feel valued because I can't prioritize the kids' dinner schedule and bedtime without having complete information.

The objective here is to stick to the facts, and to be as specific as possible. Bringing data is good! Ideally the speaker wants to make a statement in a way that is indisputable (fact vs. opinion). This can be hard.

The Impact: Step 2 is to describe how the factual action made you feel:

When you arrive home late without calling to let me know ahead of time, I don’t feel valued because I can't prioritize the kids' dinner schedule and bedtime without having complete information.

How is the action impacting you? The objective here is to stick to “I” statements — not “You” statements. This is very important. Nobody can argue with your feelings– those belong fully to you.

Note that it can be hard to list actual feelings here (especially in a work setting) but doing so allows the conversation to get to Levels 2 and 3 (from the table above) to really unpack what’s happening. Very often, one might say something like I feel like you don't care about the kids being in bed on time. That’s actually an opinion, not a feeling. It’s OK to share opinions, but the more we can actually observe and understand how it’s truly making us feel, the more accurately we’ll be able to fully describe the actual impact the action is having on us.

3.b) The Active Listening framework is a game-changer. This is one of those things that we all wave our hands at and say "yeah, yeah, I get it" but it's actually incredibly hard to do – and even harder to do well. Try it yourself and you'll see what I mean. Here's how it works:

  • When someone makes a statement, our natural reaction is to respond to that statement with our opinion / feeling / reaction to what you heard. (This is what causes fights to go in downward spirals of blame.)
  • This natural reaction assumes that you fully understand what was being communicated to you.
  • Surprisingly, this is often untrue.
  • Active Listening is a way to ensure that you fully understand what was communicated to you — and to ensure the person feels validated and heard — before you respond.

Importantly: When Active Listening, you are not necessarily indicating you agree with what’s being communicated by the other person to you. It’s valuable to separate out “ensuring the speaker feels validated and heard” from “feeling forced to agree with what the speaker is saying.” Active Listening is the former, not the latter. Here it is in practice:

  1. Your partner makes a statement (ideally using action/impact!): "When you arrive home late without calling to let me know ahead of time, I don’t feel valued because I can't prioritize the kids' dinner schedule and bedtime without having complete information."
  2. The recipient repeats back what s/he heard. Importantly, the goal here is not to just repeat verbatim what the speaker said, but rather, to ensure the speaker feels validated and heard. It’s also extremely likely that you will not get it 100% right on the first try (which is usually very surprising!).
  3. If the speaker (your partner in this case) feels validated and heard, s/he would say something like Yes, that's exactly right. However if your partner did not feel fully validated and heard, s/he would say something like You got that partially right. Here's what else I said: [x,y,z]. It’s really important to say so when you don’t feel fully validated and heard.
  4. The recipient then restates what s/he heard using this new information.
  5. Repeat steps 2-4 as many times as necessary until the speaker says they feel fully validated and heard. Note: It may take a number of tries! Don’t get frustrated if it does — remember your goal here is to fully understand what someone is trying to tell you, and how it’s making them feel. I've literally witnessed it take 8+ back & forth cycles before the speaker feels fully understood & heard.
  6. Once the speaker has indicated they do feel validated and heard, you can make your own statement in response, and the speaker can now Active Listen with you to ensure you are also validated and heard.

Again, this is so much harder than you would ever think it should be. I find that Active Listening is too heavy for Level 1 conversations (general operational business convos) but it's great for Level 2& 3 conversations, which have to do with feelings and opinions about competence, performance, care, prioritization, etc.

4) Our family has started using a "feeling color check-in table" to level-set on how what we are all saying to each other is impacting the other person, and I'm now experimenting with this at Armory. Here's how it works:

The "How I'm Feeling" Color Check-In Table:

Fireball Red Orange Yellow   Green Blue Turquoise
Boiling over
Really upset;
probably cursing
  Feeling good! Feeling really
Feeling incredible;
on top of the world

When one of us says something to the other person, they can respond with a color. That statement was "yellow" for me. Or Thank you, that made me feel very "turquoise!" This is incredibly helpful for me as someone who may not be as clued into how I'm making someone feel with my statements.

If you're someone who interacts with me on a regular basis, telling me what color I'm making you feel will really help me calibrate to you!

I've even started using this in my Zoom calls – a great application of this idea suggested by my cofounder Ben. I just created solid color backgrounds and added them to my Zoom virtual background:

Here's how it works in practice:

I can now easily pull up a background color when I'm on a zoom meeting that reflects how I'm feeling at that moment. (It's early in this experiment, so I don't yet know if other Tribals will try it as well, or if'll work, but we do have a core value of experimenting with our culture, so we'll see how it goes!)

I want to learn from you:

I've been on a very intentional journey to understand and live empathy so I can achieve optimal outcomes with those who are along journeys with me (whether it's my family or my Armory Tribe). I want to keep learning from those around me. Please share in the comments whatever approaches you've found really work for you. I'm looking forward to learning from you!