The HarvardBusiness.org blog has a great post titled Empathy: Not Such a Soft Skill. The post argues that “empathy is a critical skill. If you can imagine a person’s point of view — no matter what you think of it — you can more effectively influence him. Empathizing with your team, your boss, your coworkers, and your colleagues won’t make you a pushover — it’ll give you more power.”
I agree. In fact, I believe that empathy is the most imporant skill in organizing.
Do you want to recruit a volunteer? It makes all the difference if you can understand what motivates her.
Do you want to pitch a story to a reporter? Emapathy helps you understand what the reporter looks for in a story.
Do you want to lobby your mayor? Empathy helps you understand the political pressures she’s under and her own hopes and fear, and thereby better influence her.
But here’s the thing, empathy is not projecting yourself, your insecurities, or your passions onto another person.
I see this most with fundraising. People get hung up worrying that “they don’t want to hear from me,” or “they will be angry if I ask them for money.” I confess, I get caught up in this kind of thinking sometimes.
Projecting your own fear of asking is not empathy.
Empathy is really trying to understand that people like to help where they can, where they have a connection to an organization and a belief in a cause.
I also see this with people who are passionate about an issue. For example, I’m a homebrewer and a bit of a beer geek. I love to talk about yeast varietyies, fermentation temperature, and when hops are added to a beer. But this kind of talk bores most people.
Empathy isn’t about geeking out on my interests, it’s about understanding and connecting with yours.
That’s true about homebrewing. It’s also true about how many parts-per-milling of CO2 we should admit, the electoral intricicies of the FMLN election in El Salvador, or how zoning changes impact the level of affordable housing.
Empathy is the most imporant skill an organizer can have, and true empathy depends on putting aside your biases, your fears, and your agenda to really understand the other person. When you can do that, you can meet them on their terms and move them forward to be an agent for change.