The Mentor’s Way Rule #5: Balance Empathy and Action

July 8th, 2013   •   Comments Off on The Mentor’s Way Rule #5: Balance Empathy and Action   

By Rik Nemanick, Ph.D.

This post is the fifth in the series The Mentor’s Way, a set of guides for mentors who want to bring out the best in others.

Mentors Balance Empathy and ActionAs trust grows between a mentor and a protégé, the mentor will notice a change in the types of issues the protégé wants to discuss. The issues often become more complex, demanding, or recurring. Because of their more challenging nature, they usually also are more emotionally charged. In fact, this change is often a signal to a mentor that trust has built to the point that the protégé feels comfortable brining these more sensitive issues into the mentoring conversation. They signal a turning point in the partnership that many mentors miss.

Up until this point, many of the issues a protégé brought to the mentoring discussion were simpler, with easier solutions that a mentor and protégé could devise quickly. However, as the protégé and mentor wade into the deeper waters of the more complex issues, the answers won’t come as quickly or easily. And, many of these issues carry with them an emotional component that wasn’t present in the earlier issues. When mentors miss the signal the emotions present, and continue to try to focus on the issues at hand. However, they usually trip over the protégé’s emotions, and see the protégé stall out in progress. What these mentors miss is the fact that the protégé is looking as much for empathy as for a solution.

Empathy, which is the ability to understand and share someone’s feelings, is often confused with sympathy, which is feeling pity or sorry for someone. Protégés look for empathy from a mentor because a mentor has already been in the protégé’s shoes before. When a mentor empathizes with a protégé, she is connecting with a time when she felt how the protégé feels now because she has had a similar experience in the past. The ability to empathize often separates a mentor from a coach; coaches often sympathize with someone because they haven’t been in a similar situation before. Mentors often have the ability to truly empathize with a protégé, which can strengthen the connection between them.

Empathy benefits a protégé in many ways. When facing a difficult or intractable issue, a protégé often feels like she or he is the only one who is struggling. A lot of comfort comes from the protégé knowing that she or he is not along and is not the only one who has faced this issue before. The protégé also is looking for some validation that it is okay to feel this way. No one wants to feel out of control or in the grip of emotions. We all want some rational basis for why we feel the way we do. By empathizing with the protégé, the mentor is giving the protégé time and space to acknowledge and express the feelings.

When we are grappling with a difficult issue, emotions often keep us from a rational appraisal of our situation. Emotions live in our more primitive brain, and have a way of creating noise that inhibits our more rational brain from gaining the perspective needed to solve problems. Acknowledging and expressing emotions helps calm down the primitive brain and allow the reasoned brain to begin to see the situation differently.

The mistake many mentors make is to drive by the emotional content of the protégé’s issue and go straight to problem solving. Doing this can cause the trust a mentor and protégé have built to plateau, or even erode. Without adequate empathy, a protégé can feel belittled (my issue isn’t important), ignored (my mentor isn’t listening to me), or foolish (I’m the only one who has been tripped up by this issue).

The ability to feel and express empathy is difficult to teach, but it can often be improved. There are many ways a mentor can empathize with a protégé.

  1. Emphasize the “safe place” aspect of mentoring. By reminding the protégé that the mentoring conversation is a safe place, the mentor is giving the protégé permission to get feelings out and express them without judgment. Such a validation can allow the protégé to let go of some of the emotion.
  2. Use feeling words to identify and validate the emotions. Often naming an emotion goes a long way to making a protégé feel understood. By saying, “I can see that this makes you very frustrated,” creates an opening for a protégé to acknowledge his or her own feelings. It helps to build up your emotional lexicon to give you words to name emotions. You can find a starter list here.
  3. Relate your own experiences. The feeling of empathy comes from being able to relate to someone else’s experience. As a mentor, you are more likely than others to have faced similar issues to your protégé. You can share your experiences using “Feel, Felt, Found.” “I can see that you feel ____. I have felt that way when____. What I have found is that _____.”
  4. Test to see if the protégé is ready to start considering solutions. The longer the issue has been festering, the longer it may take for the protégé to let go of the emotions. You don’t want to hurry a protégé along too quickly if the emotions haven’t been fully explored or expressed. Check to see if the protégé wants to think about solutions yet, or if the time would be better spent talking through the emotions.

The caution for mentors is not to get caught up wallowing with a protégé. If the turn is never made to actions a protégé can take, the emotions can begin to overwhelm the conversation and become a whirlpool that continues to pull downward. It is important to find the balance between empathy and action. Once your protégé starts to move toward action, you can use the next rule, Foster Accountability, to help keep up the momentum.

To comment on this article or to learn more about mentoring, contact Rik Nemanick at nemanick@leadership-effect.com

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