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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A conversation that moves forward – empathy and provocation

Whether you have a conversation with a business partner, your subordinate, a colleague, or with a friend or family member, I assume you aspire to really move forward in and through that conversation. In my work as a coach, trainer, and psychologist, I have seen many cases in which the highly regarded Rogerian empathic responses are being over-used and misused. When relied on too heavily and one-sidedly, they do not provide the necessary guidance and input to move the conversation forward but rather stall the conversation or keep it in so called ‘safe waters’.

Let me assure you: Empathy is crucial in relationships and in life. Empathic people can see the world through other people’s eyes. Empathy helps you understand the other person’s point of view, needs, and responses. Without empathy I would not be able to accomplish coaching and training goals as I do, nor would I enjoy the deep and reciprocal relationships that I do. Neither would you. For a good reason, empathy is one of the main elements of Daniel Goleman’s widely researched emotional intelligence. Your skillfulness in empathy impacts the satisfaction and the effectiveness of all your interactions. But, but, but. Empathy is not the end station, it is not the only element, and, above all, it should never provide an excuse for not confronting someone with feedback nor should it serve as a wall behind which you hide when facing difficult, painful, or unexpected situations that warrant an honest conversation.

I suggest that you carefully consider which approach and techniques to use in what circumstances. I suggest that you are aware of your motives for choosing one technique before another. Is it mere luck, convenience, coincidence, ease, or deliberate planning on the road to specific goals? Do you choose an empathic response as the best response given where you are in the conversation and in the relationship, and given the goal you are trying to accomplish, for example establishing trust or communicating understanding? Or do you choose an empathic response to avoid forming (or better: voicing) your opinion and risking a possible confrontation? Do you choose an empathic response because you are at a loss what to say or do next but reluctant to admit this impasse? Do you choose an empathic response to avoid taking responsibility, to avoid taking risks when things get tough and don’t run smoothly?

What do you do, when, what the person really needs, is a confrontation with his blind spots or when the person would benefit from a totally different perspective than his own but one he might not enjoy, at least initially? Too often I have witnessed managers shying away from one of their core responsibilities: taking action when an employee’s performance is not up to par. Of course, confronting an employee performance problem or an attitude issue is a difficult task, no denying that. It is one of the most avoided responsibilities, but it doesn’t have to be and, above all, it shouldn’t be, if personal and organizational effectiveness is on the top of your agenda (and of course, if the manager can trust his superiors to be supportive).

In many ways, coaches face similar challenges even though their relationship with the person who has performance issues is surely very different. As a coach or mentor you do not have to face the employee on a daily basis and you’re not responsible for him in a way the manager is. Still, too many coaches, and psychologists, shy away from much needed confrontations and provocations. Call it fear of rejection, call it the desire to stay in the so desired comfort zone, call it (misplaced) respect, or call it Dutch Directness, New York Honesty, or Minnesotan Nice. I don’t care what you call it, effectiveness, trust, personal growth, productivity and much more is at stake when you keep beating around the bush or avoid discussions about mishaps, blind spots, failings, darker sides, disruptive beliefs, or annoying habits.

So here is my take on the place and use of empathy, confrontation, and provocation. Yes, empathy is the number one building block to create rapport, to build a trusting relationship. Empathy should be a fundamental given in any relationship or conversation, including that of a manager, coach, or anyone. But know when empathy is not enough, when it’s in need of a more direct companion that can really move the conversation forward. With empathy as a given, you add a touch of confrontation and a dash of provocation wherever useful, despite the risk of temporary cooling down of the relationship because of shock, denial, fear, embarrassment, or any other response.

When you want to move someone toward specific goals, when you facilitate a journey of exploration and growth, or when you discuss a performance issue just to name three circumstances, it is important to not be afraid to share your opinion and to stir things up and provoke, as long as it’s based on a positive and mutually agreed upon goal and a strategy to get there. By plain mirroring the world, no coach, manager, co-worker, or psychologist moves conversations and people forward. If you avoid contradictions that lie within everyone, you are counterproductive in the face of change and growth. Respectful and thoughtful confrontation and provocation have its place in conversations and in facilitating learning and development. Confrontation and provocation, however, should never be perceived as rude, offensive, or provocative for the sake of provocation only. The real goal is to shift paradigms, to remove blind spots, to increase effectiveness, to add uncommon perspectives, and to get someone moving better or faster, or getting them to move at all! For crucial conversations to turn into valuable tools for learning and growth you sometimes need disturbing questions, upsetting perspectives, refreshingly new frame works, and responses that challenge beliefs and assumptions in addition to empathy.   

With thanks to Dutch authority on provocative work Jaap Hollander, who inspired me in the provocative approach, and to Frank Farrell, a brilliant therapist who is considered the founder of this approach and who developed provocative therapy while working with severely disturbed clients in an inpatient ward, exploring previously unheard of beliefs and practices to promote true and resilient change in chronic and recalcitrant patients. One of Frank’s clients is said to have remarked: "He is the kindest, most understanding man I have ever met in my whole life, wrapped up in the biggest son of a bitch I have ever met."

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