Forced Empathy

He was livid.

I hadn’t been on the phone for thirty seconds before the president of the firm we had been working with was giving me a generous piece of his mind. I had been unresponsive and unprofessional, he said . . . and more. Much more.

I was trying to get a word in, but he didn’t let up. He kept going at me for at least another five minutes without adding any new information. This actually worked to my advantage. It gave me time to think.

I tried to figure out how I could possibly break through when his mind was so clearly made up. What could I say that would turn this conversation around? Finally something came to me. Either he took a breath or I just jumped in. I said, “I understand your concern about the situation. But every story has two sides. Would you like to hear mine?”

Each sentence had a benefit. In the first I validated his emotions, finding the slimmest of common grounds. I could see why he would feel the way he did from his perspective.

In the second I appealed to his sense of fairness. Even in court the accused, no matter how guilty he or she may seem, gets a chance to say something in defense.

Third, I didn’t barge in and say, “Here’s my side of the story.” Instead I asked a question. I gently backed him into a corner, forcing his empathy. If he said no, that he didn’t want to hear my side, he’d be openly admitting that he was being unfair. Perhaps he would see the downside of that even in his overheated state. If he said yes, he was committing himself to hearing me out. I was compelling him to exhibit at least the slightest bit of empathy for me.

Empathy, no matter how forced it may seem, is always a good place to begin in a difficult conversation with a colleague, a customer or a supplier. I have found that even if I think someone else is dead wrong, it is still always best to begin with, “Tell me about this situation,” rather than “Let me tell you about this situation.” I need to hear things from the other side no matter how upset I may be. Usually I find that things aren’t as bad as they initially appeared, and I am saved from apologizing latter for being a jerk.

This may feel forced and arbitrary to some. Isn’t that being a hypocrite, to act one way when you actually feel another? In our therapeutic culture we forget that hypocrisy has very little to do with emotions but almost everything to do with ethics. Acting one way when I feel another is not hypocrisy. Rather hypocrisy is knowing what is right to do and failing to do it.

In this case, hypocrisy is knowing I should show empathy and not jump to conclusions, but failing to do that and indulging my anger instead. Certainly we don’t want to sound phony, but we can wait (an hour or a day) till our emotions are more level before we go to hear the other side of the story, and do the right thing.

After a moment’s pause, the president answered my question and said, “Yes.” So I told him my side of the story–what I had done, when I had done it and what the results were. Almost without missing a beat, the conversation turned 180 degrees. He had no more accusations. He thanked me for the information, told me he understood and said good-bye. Turns out he could be empathetic too.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

6 thoughts on “Forced Empathy”

  1. Good write ups. pls keep it up.

    Am i free to share ur insight with friends?


  2. Andy, given your ongoing interest in interpersonal dynamics, you may find the following books constructive: i) The Anger Trap: Free Yourself From the Frustrations That Sabotage Your Life, ii) Enough About You, Let’s Talk About Me: How To Recognize & Manage the Narcissists in Our Life, and iii) Imperative People: Those Who Must Be in Control, basically, how to deal with control freaks, including the one inside you (which will be available in revised edition in 1-2 months)–all by Dr. Les Carter.

  3. It seems to me true empathetic listening (difficult to practicve)would bee to have first, restated (by summarizing) his position to his satisfaction. You should not state you position, opinion, facts based on you perception until you first legitimize his to him. It doesn’t mean you accept his tirade, it simply lets him know you heard min, and understand. Once he’s accepted you summation, his mind is more open to your perception. Why? You acknowledged his right to voice his opinion, acknowledged you heard what he was trying to get across. Finally, this asknowledgement shows you to be a caring, understanding person. The other person becomes much more open when they feel this about you!

  4. Hi Mark

    Certainly you are right in this. And I do try to do that. I think I kept with the spirit of that in seeking to validate his emotional reaction–even if I didn’t think I could take the time to summarize the content behind his emotions. My judgment in the middle of the conversation (maybe right, maybe wrong) was that I had to quickly break through because I wasn’t sure I was going to get another chance. My perception was that he wasn’t ready for a very long response from me of any kind. I thought this was the quickest way to do so and still express some degree of empathy.


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