The word empathy is derived from the Greek words “em” and “pathos,”. Empathy literally means “into feeling.” When we are empathetic, we can “walk a mile in their shoes”, we “see things through their eyes”, we “understand where they are coming from”.
Being empathetic enhances our ability to receive and process information. When we suspend judgment and exercise empathy, we can learn from the perspective of others. Empathy is a key ingredient of successful collaboration as it helps us understand the opinions, ideas and, intentions of others.
When a group collaborates, empathy is often assumed to be present, but it is rarely the case. I believe it is a good idea for the group to highlight the need for empathy so that all voices are heard and the room is not dominated by the extraverts or the HiPPO: Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. In addition, when we consider where each person is “coming from” (empathy) and when we agree on ways of working, we are less likely to hold back on our suggestions or withhold beneficial critique.
This Thursday Thought is inspired by Dan Roam’s bestselling and timeless classic, “Back of a Napkin” and our guest on the Innovation Show, Anne Janzer author of “Writing to be Understood.”
The Pens of Innovation
In “Back of a Napkin”, Dan Roam mentions how he characterizes people in his workshops as “Black Pen”, “Yellow Pen”, or “Red Pen” people. In my workshops, I see a similar trend. Where relevant, I incorporate “The Pens” as an exercise into the workshop. I call these characters “The PenPals”. To explain, let’s explore each type of “Penpal”.
“The Pioneers Take the Arrows.”
The Black Pens are those people who grab the bull (pen) by the horns. They dive right in, they get started. They give it a go. They take a punt. They are those people who speak up first and speak up often.
For the Rest of the Group
We must have the empathy to realize, that the Black PenPal predisposition to take a punt does not mean they are immune to criticism. It takes a certain kind of personality to risk the criticism of others in front of their peers. Just because the pioneers take the arrows it does not mean the arrows don’t hurt.
Perhaps we should appreciate their willingness to take a pen and start suggesting and be aware of our language when we disagree. This does not mean walking on eggshells, it simply means maintaining empathy when you disagree (Red Pens) or want to build on their ideas (Highlighters).
Advice for the Black Pen
If you are the Black Pen, heed the words of Winston Churchill. “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.“
For the Rest of the Group
Highlighter penpals are those people who do not instigate the idea, but they can build upon those ideas. They may not have the same creativity or maybe even bravery as the Black Pen people to start the ball (ahem, ballpen) rolling, but they can add to it. The highlighters identify the most important or interesting aspects of what someone else articulated. They are a bridge between vision and reality. They are an extremely valuable part of a diverse group.
Advice for the Highlighter
While you have the skill of building upon the ideas of others, it is worth picking up the black pen every so often. If it is fear (of judgment) that is holding you back, explore the origin of that fear. (Perhaps Psychological Safety of the group.)
For the Rest of the Group
Bob Pittman is the former CEO of MTV and today is chairman and chief executive of Clear Channel Communications. In a New York Times interview, Pittman revealed how “Often in meetings, I will ask people when we’re discussing an idea, “What did the dissenter say?” The first time you do that, somebody might say, “Well, everybody’s on board.” Then I’ll say, “Well, you guys aren’t listening very well, because there’s always another point of view somewhere and you need to go back and find out what the dissenting point of view is.”
Pittman is looking for a gap in their perspective, perhaps something the Black Pen and Highlighters are missing. He went on to say, “I want us to listen to these dissenters because they may intend to tell you why we can’t do something, but if you listen hard, what they’re really telling you is what you must do to get something done. It gets you out of your framework of the conventions of what you can and can’t do.”
I share this viewpoint because we can often view the Red Pens as a negative influence in a group. However, they play a vital role when they are embraced.
Advice for the Red Pen
Image by Tom Fishburne
Being the Red Pen is not an excuse to scribble all over the thoughts of others. You see something that they do not. You see the world differently. Embrace empathy when delivering your message, send messages not arrows. Being a red pen is not a license to play devil’s advocate and passively-aggressively roast everyone else’s ideas.
The ChangeMaker is a Mix of All 3 Pens
If anything a leader must pay attention to, it is the difference between a “Naysayer” and a “Gainsayer”. A Naysayer is a person who criticizes, objects to, or opposes something and often with no better solution (be careful of this if you are a Red Pen).
A gainsayer, in contrast, is someone who emphasizes flaws and threats but does so with positive intent (like a highlighter person).
In innovation work, in transformation initiatives, most people fall into this broad category, they toggle between naysaying and gainsaying. The tragedy is that they are often labeled as negative. As a leader, you must embrace the fact that they are saying. Pay particular attention to their intent. Are they moaning or are they seeking solutions?
I don’t know what happens when you mix black, red, and a highlighter pen, but I guess black will dominate. If that is the case, then a changemaker is also a Black PenPal. Changemakers live at the intersection of all three pens and they are willing to take the arrows. But remember, the arrows still hurt.
THANKS FOR READING
If you like this article, you might also like my book “Undisruptable: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life” It is available anywhere you find books and is also available on audiobook.
To open up the thinking of your team in a fun and engaging way, you may also enjoy our corporate workshops, designed to create Aha moments for you and your team to break the mental barriers we often encounter.
On this week’s Innovation Show we welcome the author of Everyday Business Storytelling: Create, Simplify, and Adapt A Visual Narrative for Any Audience, Janine Kurnoff.