How It Feels to Be a Leader

I was feeling frustrated, angry even. I launched into a tirade of complaints about how I had been wronged and how I needed to be given something to make me feel better. If you were on the receiving end of this, how would you feel? Would you feel like listening to me, thoughtfully hearing my concerns, and giving me what I wanted? Probably not. If anything, you might dig your heels in some more and hold your position. Maybe you’d lash out at me about what I had done wrong.

This equally describes a business relationship that had gone sour, as much as it describes me trying to convince my 5 year-old child to stop pushing on a door that was squishing her younger sibling’s fingers.

I had presented the above scenario to a friend of mine and she recommended I read Never Split the Difference, written by Chris Voss, in which he shares techniques he used as an FBI agent negotiating hostage situations and how to apply them to business and life negotiations.

In parallel, a friend suggested I read How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, written by Joanna Faber, a book for helping parents empathize and negotiate with their kids aged 2 to 7 years old.

In their simplest sense, both books talk about acknowledging the emotions being felt by others (that is, the party I’m negotiating with, whether it is a challenging counterpart in business or my 5 year old child). In both books, we’re encouraged to show understanding rather than telling by saying, “I understand”, and to do it authentically. In Voss’ book, the technique is referred to as “tactical empathy”. In Faber’s book, she builds upon the principles of dealing with feelings like frustration, disappointment, anger, expressing anger without being hurtful, and encouraging positive relationships. At the root of her book is emotions and empathy as well.

This isn’t new science. Before I say more about emotions, empathy, and negotiating, let me mention Antonio Damasio, a renowned neuroscientist whose research of people with brain damage showed that emotions drive decisions. 

Eliott and the Orbitofrontal Cortex

Eliott, one of Damasio’s neurology patients, had a small tumour cut from his cortex near the brain’s frontal lobe. Prior to the surgery, he had a successful career and a management position in a large corporation. He had a family and healthy relationships with his spouse and children. After the surgery, his intellect and logic remained the same. He was able to apply logic in analyzing choices he faced, but he had trouble making decisions. Even the simplest of decisions such as what to wear in the morning, whether to use a blue pen or black pen, and what appointment time to choose to meet with Damasio took hours of analysis and deliberation. 

Damasio observed Eliott’s dispassionate responses and his friends and family soon confirmed that Eliott appeared to be devoid of emotion. Damasio discovered in Eliott and in other patients with similar such struggles, damage to the orbitofrontal cortex, found in the frontal lobe of the brain, just above the orbits in which the eyes are located. It’s the part of the brain that affects emotions and Eliott’s inability to experience emotions meant he couldn’t make decisions. He lost his job. His relationships deteriorated and his spouse divorced him. The damage to his brain, and the resultant inability to make decisions, ruined his life.  

Emotions in Negotiations and Decision-Making 

Whether we’re negotiating with someone in a business relationship or our children, emotions drive their decisions to agree or disagree with us or to comply with or oppose our request. We’ve been led to believe that emotions are irrational and that if we leave out emotions, we’ll make better decisions.

When a person is drawn to a particular piece of clothing, or an object like a pen, or has a preference as to time of day to meet, the orbitofrontal cortex is trying to tell them that they should choose that option. We can gather information and analyze our options, however our emotions are an important and necessary input. Our emotions steer us in one direction or another – breaking any impasse that may result from balanced analysis of all options. 

Successful negotiations and effective decision-making require a high degree of empathy. Listening deeply to how others feel, understanding those emotions, and expressing our empathy authentically creates a positive feeling and could be the key to a decision we’re trying to influence. When others feel as though their feelings are not heard nor understood, it leads to a negative feeling that becomes a barrier to reaching agreement on a decision.

Empathetic Leadership

I’m writing this in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries with the best coronavirus responses have one thing in common – women leaders. Here in my country, Canada, women are leading our public health response. The empathetic leadership style of Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, is being praised.

Influential men in business are jumping on the bandwagon.

To lead in this day and age is not to shut feelings out of our decisions and actions. Effective and inspired leadership goes beyond emotional intelligence and awareness. It leans into emotions and values vulnerability and empathy.

What are other ways to cultivate empathy? What are the emotions driving your decisions right now?

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