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Empathy Trumps Projection

Empathy Trumps Projection

Projection and empathy are not the same thing, but they are often confused. Empathy is the ability to understand how someone is thinking, whereas projection is presuming a person thinks like you. Be careful not to project when it is empathy that you intend.

In performing role plays of customer meetings, a group of sales managers consistently began conversations with customers with responses to objections the customer had yet to make, such as excessively long lead-times, too high costs, limited selection of inventory, and so on, as if to pre-empt them. The sales managers had a lower view of themselves than their customers had of them. While the sales managers thought they were empathizing with customers, they were really only projecting their own low self-regard onto customers who had no such view.

Can you imagine the impact that had on the company’s sales, close rates, and pricing?

A global manager for the product development process of a European company was overseeing process reform of the company’s Japan subsidiary. He hesitated to impose global standards even when it was appropriate because he believed that if he asserted his authority, it would cause the local manager to lose face and make it hard to work together in the future. Someone had apparently warned him about the concept of “losing face” in Asia. While the European manager felt he was being culturally sensitive and empathizing with his Japanese counterpart, he was really only projecting his own thinking. In reality, when asked, the Japanese manager explained he wanted the guidance from the global office.

He wanted to know where he could improve processes based on practices overseas. “Face” had nothing to do with it.

The CEO of a European company here in Japan was seeking to acquire a local manufacturing company. He found a good candidate, and the owner/CEO agreed to meet. He told me, “The owner/CEO of the company is a typical, older, Japanese guy, so he must be conservative. I doubt there will be interest, and if there were, things will take forever to reach a deal, if we get there at all!” he told me. “It’s probably all just a waste of time.”

How could the European CEO possibly know any of this for sure without asking? Maybe the Japanese CEO wants to cash out and retire? Maybe his kids have no interest in or aptitude for the business? In any case, the Japanese owner/CEO must be interested enough to take the time to meet.

I asked the European CEO these questions before his meeting, and it was a good thing too. He went into the meeting with an open mind, asking questions. As it turned out, the European CEOs presumptions were completely wrong. He held a number of meetings with other owner/CEOs in the same way. Eventually, a company was acquired. Yet, can you imagine how meetings might have progressed if the European CEO projected the intentions of his counterpart out-of-hand?

Projection is a risky business. Unvalidated assumptions are always prone to error. Click To Tweet

No businessperson is so insightful as to grasp the intention of others through his or her own rationale alone. Empathy requires human-to-human interaction, not independent analysis. This is why artificial intelligence frequently fails. It is a technology based entirely on projection when it’s empathy that is needed.

There is no analytical substitute for human empathy, electronic or otherwise. You can ask questions to understand the intent, the perceptions, and desires of others. Do so unabashedly.

No one will ever fault you for asking questions that are meant to help them.


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