“Empathy is a choice,” says research professor Brené Brown, “and it’s a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”
The following is an excerpt from Carly Fiorina’s new book, Find Your Way.
I’m convinced, from decades of enlightening experiences, that absolutely any problem can be solved with the right people around the table.
I have been in countless meetings that came to a stalemate over a particular issue. But rather than becoming frustrated, or feeling helpless, hopeless, or enraged, I’ve learned to say to myself, “We’re missing someone we need.”
We needed one more person’s perspective.
We needed one more person’s passion.
We needed one more person’s logic.
We needed one more person’s optimism.
Diversity of opinion is the dynamite that blows up the logjams that are keeping groups stuck. But how do we manage all that diversity? Two words: humility and empathy. When those two qualities are evident, true collaboration becomes possible.
To practice humility and empathy, we must step outside the bounds of ourselves first, and then outside of our own little tribes. It’s human nature to want to be with our own people, our kind, our squad. It’s easier, often more fun, always more comfortable to spend our time with people like us. And yet, if we want to make a difference, we must approach and engage with people who think, look, and act differently. We must be willing to say to the world at large, “I recognize that I don’t have all the answers.” (That’s humility.) “And I acknowledge that you can help me fill in those gaps.” (That’s empathy.) Humility is the understanding that we can’t go it alone. Empathy is the ability to identify with the challenges that have brought other people to where they are. Combined, these two traits invite us into authentic relationships with others, allowing collaborative energy to begin to flow. Humility keeps us open to new information, new insights, new wisdom. Empathy encourages us to unite.
To be humble is to be teachable. It is to play the role that others don’t want to play. It is to find comfort in admitting that we don’t always know. It is to seek out opportunities to learn. From what I’ve observed in life, either we seek out humility, or humility will find us.
Back at AT&T, when I was first promoted to officer, I had high hopes for overseeing manufacturing, operations, or some other “real” line of work. Instead, I was assigned to the strategy division. In fairness to my higher-ups there, strategy is a very important part of any successful corporation, and it’s quite difficult to do well. It’s just that organizations as a whole rarely value strategy, which meant I faced an uphill climb. In some respects, I’d been promoted to “professional nag.”
The way I saw it, I had a choice to make. I could either stew and sulk and slide right into a self-fulfilling prophesy of irrelevance and disregard. Or I could work to make the strategy division valuable by the way I lived and led. I chose the latter and plowed ahead.
Though I never succeeded in winning over certain portions of the company that insisted on doing their own thing, that strategy gig turned into a wild blessing for me. Out of sheer necessity, I learned to forge and deepen relationships; I learned to ask questions to understand other people’s points of view; and I learned to prize other people’s success. I look back on that experience and think, Where else would I have gained all that learning?” What a gift. And to think that, if I had “stayed on plan,” I would have missed out on a very valuable piece of the path for me.
We can either choose humility, or humility will one day choose us. Far better to intentionally assume the posture of a learner, to ask questions, to admit what you do not know. You know the old proverb: “Pride goeth . . . before a fall.” Without humility, you can’t learn from others—and you certainly can’t collaborate to solve problems.
And yet for all its importance, humility is only half of the collaboration equation. The other half, of course, is empathy—the ability to lend understanding to someone who is different from you. If you have ever been late to a meeting because you logged the incorrect start time in your calendar, and a member of the meeting looked at you, smiled, and said, “No worries, we’ve all done it,” you have been the recipient of empathy. If you’ve ever articulated your position on a delicate topic, and the person to whom you were speaking said, “I understand what you are saying,” or if you’ve confessed an embarrassing habit or addiction to a friend and heard that friend say, “I’ve been there too,” you have seen empathy in action. If you’ve ever stood up for someone or something and heard, “I appreciate your perspective” in response; or if you’ve ever expressed dissatisfaction with a spouse or a friend and heard, “I’m so sorry to hear that” in reply, then you have seen empathy at work.
“Empathy is a choice,” says research professor Brené Brown, “and it’s a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” Such a worthwhile aspiration! Such a challenge to execute. Truly, the coping distance between our typical hair-on-fire pace and the thoughtful, intentional, generous expression Dr. Brown suggests can feel like traversing the Grand Canyon most days. On foot. Without shoes. In the rain. Is there any hope for us?
I spoke at a university gathering in 2018, and partway through my opener, which I thought was lighthearted and expectant and fun, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of three young women on the fourth or fifth row standing to their feet. They reached underneath their seats for the poster boards they’d brought. “Eat the rich,” one of the signs said. “Your white feminism sucks,” read another. “Human need, not corporate greed,” read the third.
Ah, so it’s going to be one of those nights.
I greeted the women and read their signs aloud. So I was clear on what they’d come to say. Then I asked if they would be willing to stay through my talk until the floor was open for Q&A. I genuinely welcomed the spirited discourse I imagined we’d have. But unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to have that conversation. The women refused to sit down so I could carry on with my talk, and eventually they were asked to leave.
In my view, their behavior was a tangible display of the temptation we all face these days, which is to holler out our five-word protest while refusing to listen to the other side. What we have in our society today is a breakdown of empathy—of gigantic proportions. We’ll never make progress this way. If we hope to come together instead of driving each other apart, we must commit with equal passion to the practices of humility and empathy.
Find Your Way by Carly Fiorina
A perfect gift for graduates!
No matter where you are in life, you are not yet all you will be . . . At some point, virtually everyone finds themselves struggling to find their way in life.
Perhaps you’re just starting out and haven’t yet found your personal or professional path. Maybe you’ve been plugging away for years, trying to live someone else’s dream. Maybe you’re outwardly successful but plagued by a nagging, soul-level sense of dissatisfaction.
Carly Fiorina, who started as a secretary and later became the first female CEO of a Fortune 50 company, can help. Drawing on her own remarkable journey, and empirical evidence accumulated over four decades in the workplace, Carly will show you how to: choose a path over a plan, use problems to propel yourself and your organization forward, overcome fear and procrastination, make smart decisions, and reclaim your power and use it for good.