The surprising thing about empathy

Empathy is not a new skill, and its value still cannot be overstated.

Dale Carnegie published How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936, so people have tried to "Become Genuinely Interested in Other People" (Chapter 2) for at least 81 years. But in The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Stephen Covey observed: “most people don't listen with the intent to understand – they listen with the intent to respond." And my 10 years of experience tells me that sounds about right. In tech sales, our last few years have been devoted to managing Challengers, playbooks, metrics - and measuring empathy is hard. But seeking to understand before being understood - applying empathy - recently became trendy again.

Atticus Finch taught us to understand other people. "You never really understand a person until you consider things from [her] point of view... until you climb into [her] skin and walk around in it." When we practice empathy, we seek to understand the emotions of others. Done well, we mirror someone else's feelings by connecting to their limbic system. We recognize what drives their behavior. You can't do that with language. It's not an analytical skill. Biologically speaking, it's arational. It's an observational practice. In simple terms, empathy is noticing, understanding and responding to the details that matter to other people.

Here's a story about applying empathy - by seeking to understand, first - in order to influence another. I hope you find it useful.

Her name is Bit Posey Smith - we call her Bit (you know, like the smallest thing). Bit is about 7 months old. She weighs about 5 pounds. She's a Jack Russell Terrier and Yorkshire terrier mix with some kind of tiny dog thrown in. Bit loves our 8-year-old boxer, Fenway. My wife and I rescued her from PAWS Chicago last year. She just got back from 2 weeks at a sleepaway training camp for puppies. Now Bit sits to say please. She walks away from something when she hears "leave it." And she barks when she dislikes something. Camp taught Bit at least one bad habit plus some good ones.

Here's our little Bit (she's the scruffy one on the left

Bits life has been snowfall in winter. From her point of view, outside is the pits: The cold air makes her shiver. The salt on the ground burns her feet. Bigger, more dominant dogs make her cringe. One of them kicked her yesterday. For Bit, outside means she's on her belly, cold, and her feet burn - in other words, she's miserable. From her point of view, outside is #1 uncomfortable and #2 intimidating. How would that make you feel?

So potty training Bit has been... a challenge. All the trainers say crate training and having your pup go outside is the only way to effectively potty train. But Bit won't go outside. Like, at all. Not for my wife and I anyway. Not in winter. In the wild, Bit's mother would immediately remove any waste or waste smell from the den. That's how puppies learn dens are not bathrooms. The crate teaches puppies not to go indoors by making them live in it if they go to the bathroom in the crate. No scent control - no puppy mom - needed. But that first night Bit informs us she does not like being stuck her crate. And my wife cannot sleep through it.

Jerry Weissman among others taught us the truth about communication - that communication with others takes place when they understand what we want them to understand and not before. When there's no Aha! moment, we are not communicating. Doesn't matter how many words, pictures, videos or calculators we use. People understand things in terms of their own experience, which means we must get inside their experience. When we go outside someone's experience not only do we not communicate - we cause confusion.

Let me show you what I mean. Bit started to bark. Very rarely but she started barking indoors. We told her "no" when she did that. Then she barked more often. Turns out a short word like "no" just sounds like noise to a dog. Brevity in puppy-speak is not a virtue. Unless there's conscious effort behind your sound (unless the noise in the "no" continues for some time) then there's no meaning in it. She makes a little noise, we make a little noise. A dog interprets that exchange as exciting. We took our little pup outside her experience, and she got confused.

The misunderstandings continued. We asked Bit to sleep in a crate. She spent the night crated for 32 days straight, and all the noise told us clearly she was not asleep while she did it. We asked Bit to "go outside" in the winter. She went outside, and then spent all her time huddled next to the space heater or peering intently at the door she came in - waiting to go back inside. And she punished us for it by leaving little "presents" for us all over the house. If we wanted to communicate effectively, we had to give her an experience.

So we're back to our potty training problem. We can't use the crate to communicate with our puppy. And we can't take our puppy outside because she isn't built to live in the environment outside. She understands scent control. She understands who is dominant and who is not. She's a dog. So we act like a dog's mom instead of a dog trainer.

How do we channel our inner puppy mom? Thanks to spending time at home, our house is already marked with our scent. We make it very clear where waste scent is allowed using puppy pads (think more like a litter box than a diaper). We remove waste scent immediately from anywhere it is forbidden. And we persist. In 1 week, our little Bit had 2 accidents. In 1 month, she's become more fastidious about our house rules than our other dog. Now she goes indoors in her assigned spot.

This is what it means to first understand, and then seek to be understood. We observed to understand what mattered to her. We communicated our expectations from inside her experience. She heard us. And we all benefit. I mean, how cute is this little scene from our living room:

Bit is potty trained now. #InterspeciesCommunication #proud