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In yesterday’s post Mentors 4/18: Be Direct. Tell The Truth, However Hard, Joah Spearman left a very powerful comment about empathy.
“The older I get the more I realize that truth is something that is best coupled with empathy. Ultimately, you have to seek to understand before you can be understood and part of telling the truth is knowing that you’ll never know someone else’s truth until you hear it directly from them rather than assuming you know what someone has experienced or what’s best for them.”
This made me think of a deeply held belief that I hold with my partners at Foundry Group – brutal honesty delivered kindly.
I especially keyed in on Transparent, Authentic, and Empathetic as these three are core personal values of mine. However, these three ideas often come into conflict. It’s hard to be transparent and empathetic at the same time. Consider the situation where you fire a person. Legally, you likely have some constraints on what you say, limiting your transparency. You want to be empathetic to the person you fired, so this again limits your transparency (or, if you are transparent, you likely aren’t being very empathetic.) And then, at a meta-level, you will have some internal struggles with your authenticity around this situation.
The tension between the concepts is helpful as it makes you think harder about how you comport yourself is difficult, challenging, or complex situations.
The solution between me, Seth, Jason, and Ryan is to be brutally honest at all times but deliver feedback kindly.
While I’m sure we hold back on occasion, especially when one of us is unclear on what is going on, we subscribe to the notion of brutal honesty. We try hard to be fair witnesses in the style of my wife Amy, saying what we believe to be the truth. When it’s a hypothesis, we frame it as such. When it’s an assertion, we state that. When it’s something we feel strongly about, we preface it appropriately. And when it’s a fact that we are certain of, we are unambiguous in what we say.
No matter how difficult, sharp, upsetting, or confrontational something is, we always deliver the message kindly. We are not decedents of the Stepford Wives and we each have our own personalities, so “delivered kindly” means something different for each of us. But we never mean malice, harm, or disrespect. We are quick to own our opinions, especially when we are wrong. And when on the receiving end, we listen, and try to understand the other person’s truth, as well as our own, and then reconcile them.
If you sat in a meeting with us, you’d see no yelling. No pounding on the table. No grandstanding. No aggressive body language. No passive aggressive behavior. But you would hear a lot of brutal honesty, And you’ll hear it delivered kindly.
A classical relationship problem is the dichotomy between solving a problem and providing empathy. If you really want to understand this, spend two minutes and watch the awesome “It’s Not About The Nail” video below.
Amy and I have figured this out extremely well in our relationship. We talk about it in Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur using the example of the scene from the movie White Men Can’t Jump to frame the situation.
There’s a delightful scene in the movie White Men Can’t Jump. In it, Billy Hoyle (played by Woody Harrelson) and Gloria Clemente (played by Rosie Perez) are in bed together. Gloria says to Billy, “Honey, I’m thirsty.” Billy gets up without saying word, goes to the kitchen, fills up a glass of water, brings it back to the bed, and gives it to Gloria. As Billy is crawling back into bed, Gloria tosses the water in his face. Startled, Billy says, “What?!” A long conversation ensues, which can be summarized as, “Honey, when I say I’m thirsty, I don’t want a glass of water. I want empathy. I want you to say, ‘I know what it’s like to be thirsty.’”
But this isn’t limited to personal relationships, or the difference between men and women (lots of men need empathy, even if they don’t know how to ask for it.) I see this all the time in my interaction with entrepreneurs and CEOs. I see it in the board room. And I see it in the way a CEO works with her leadership team.
The natural reaction in many of these cases is to immediately jump in and solve the problem. Granted, this is male-centric, as the ratio of men to women in these meetings at startups and entrepreneurial companies is very high. But it’s also CEO and entrepreneur-centric behavior; most CEOs and entrepreneurs are heat seeking problem solving missiles.
If you are an entrepreneur, CEO, or VC take a moment and think. Do you ever focus on “empathy” rather than “problem solving.” If you want to see an example of this in action, watch Jerry Colonna’s brilliant interview with Jason Calacanis. There’s a lot of incredible things on display in this interview, including plenty of empathy.