More Thoughts on Empathy in Freelancing . . .

All interactions and transactions in business need to have empathy for each party involved. Empathy has been defined by psychologists as an “affirming, supportive and validating milieu” (Rowe and MacIsaac). Famed Canadian entrepreneur Arlene Dickinson recently wrote this:

“Empathy is not a negative in the workplace, despite what many people believe. The conventional wisdom is that if you feel too much for others, you lack the toughness to get ahead. It’s just not true. In fact, if you are able to put yourself in another person’s shoes, you’re more likely to be able to persuade them to walk with you in the direction you want to go” (Persuasion 169).

She adds that if “you get in the habit of listening closely and taking yourself out of the equation, so that you can truly empathize with others, you’ll find that good timing starts to come naturally. Empathy, in other words, will help make you more persuasive” (170).

Empathy, however, cannot be only one-sided. It requires give and take. For instance, a journalist colleague recently sent a draft of an article to his interviewee, for fact-checking. He felt stung by the one-sidedness of the interviewee’s replies:

Interviewee:  “It’s all wrong. Start over.”

Journalist: “What’s so wrong about it all . . .”

Interviewee: “Everything [is wrong]!”

Journalist: “So what about this word [pointing out one] – what should it say?”

Interviewee: “It should say ‘Braeburn,’ not ‘apple.’ ”

Journalist: “OK. Good. I can fix that. But what else is wrong? What about this word [pointing out another]?”

Interviewee: “Well, that’s all right. But there’s a lot of it that’s all wrong!”

Celebrated negotiator, William Ury (of the Harvard Negotiation Project), says of such moments: “Don’t Argue: Step to their Side” (Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations). Use empathy even (and especially) when you’re not receiving it from the other person.

When dealing with a difficult person, client or colleague, Ury recommends listening actively or empathically—giving your “opponent” a good hearing. Paraphrase what that person says and ask for corrections that they want to make to what you’ve heard.

Then acknowledge the other person’s point, their feelings and offer an apology, if something has gone wrong, even if you are not the one who has failed them in this exchange.

Agree wherever you can, but without conceding (accumulate yes-es).

Build a working relationship by acknowledging the other person’s authority and competence.

Express your views without provoking that other person (say “yes . . . and” (and not “but”). Make more statements with “I” than with “You.”

But don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself, the points you are making, or your values.

Acknowledge your differences with optimism, because you share numerous interests with the other person (or side) and those, more than any polarized positions, are key to negotiating agreement.

These are all acts of empathy, by which you can create a favourable climate for business. You may be thinking, it doesn’t sound so difficult. So why then is it that in difficult situations freelancers so seldom converse this way with their prospects and clients?

Ury writes that the hurdles to finding a mutually beneficial contract/agreement are each side’s suspicion and hostility, closed ears and lack of respect. Therefore, your best strategy begins with “stepping to their side.”

For both parties, it’s harder to be hostile to someone who hears you out and acknowledges what you say and how you feel. It’s easier to listen to someone who has listened to you and similarly, it’s easier to respect someone who has shown you respect. Positive human interactions involve such listening and respect.

At some point in their work, most freelancers often strive to develop mutually beneficial and fair working relationships with their prospects or clients, sometimes in contentious situations.

My call-to-action (CTA) to my prospects and clients is to consider how perceiving and acknowledging an “other” party’s perspective empathetically can better the way that you do business.  Or better the ways in which you want me, as one such “other,” to do it, in relation to you.

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