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From time to time, but hopefully not too often, everybody has to handle a situation that is generally called “difficult”. What exactly is a difficult situation, say, a difficult meeting with an important customer?

Why "difficult"?

Let's start by looking at what it is not:

  • We don’t usually call a meeting difficult because the content is intellectually very challenging. The IT industry is blessed with many bright people, and I assume that you, dear reader, are one of them. (In fact, many years ago I read – probably in Daniel Goleman’s famous book about Emotional Intelligence – about a fascinating study that had determined that a high IQ was not a predictive factor for a successful career in IT. Instead, a high IQ is the necessary entrance ticket into the industry. Once you’re in, your career success is determined primarily by the strength of your “emotional intelligence”, a.k.a. EQ.) So we don’t usually have any trouble grasping the content of any discussion or negotiation intellectually, and “difficult” meetings are no exception here.
  • Also, we rarely call a meeting difficult because the interests of the parties that meet are so strongly in opposition, and so difficult to bring to congruence. Once again, finding and executing a reasonable scenario in which everybody wins or that is at the very least a viable option for all is not difficult for smart people, even if complex planning with limited resources and many dependencies is involved. If there are no atmospheric disturbances and a foundation of trust between the parties that are involved, it is a piece of cake.

Which leads me to my point: Meetings are difficult when they are emotionally difficult, because porcelain has been shattered, because there are atmospheric disturbances, because the foundation of trust between the parties has been lost or damaged. We are not worried before meeting with a customer who has high demands – but we may be quite worried before meeting one who is mad as hell. Or, if you’re in a leadership role, a really difficult meeting might be one about deeply emotional personal conflicts in your team, in which emotions lie bare, hurtful past events are discussed, and you’re always just one inconsiderate word away from someone breaking into tears.

These situations are difficult because they don’t give us the usual leeway, in which a slightly off phrase may be shrugged off or laughed away. Instead, every word that is not perfectly right is likely to shatter more porcelain and make the situation much worse. You may go into a meeting with a customer who is seriously mad, and go out of a meeting with a former customer who is actively seeking to destroy you. On the other hand, if you handle things very well, you might not only resolve a very unpleasant situation, but also end up turning a potential opponent into a loyal and powerful supporter, and bring an important relationship to a new level. The stakes are high: There is a lot to lose, and plenty to win.

How to master difficult situations

In my experience, the single most important factor for resolving an emotionally charged conflict, in a business setting or elsewhere, is the ability to figure out how exactly everybody involved feels about all the aspects of the situation. You’ve got to find out what the conflict parties’ really sensitive buttons are, who pushed those buttons, when, why, and how. Did anyone lose face? Were they humiliated? Did they feel their trust betrayed? Are they feeling let down, insecure, afraid of the unknown? Does product X by vendor Y pose a threat to them because they see their own position waning into insignificance, or does the product, or the vendor’s behavior, violate someone’s personal core values? Is someone's playtoy being taken away, or is someone crying because they are shown the cold shoulder?

Seeing these things clearly is always non-trivial, and in a business setting it’s going to be made more difficult because nobody speaks “tacheles”, and discusses these underlying things openly. Instead, the conversation takes place on a plane several levels of abstraction removed from where the actual issues lie. People will voice their concerns about percentages, discuss the development of margins in certain regions and market segments, or debate the virtues of competing IT standards, when in fact they feel like a crying three-year old who just had their toy shovel taken away by an older bully.

Resolving the conflict is frequently not doable by solving, on a rational level, all the problems that have been brought to the table. This will only result in stubbornness, new problems being brought up, and a peace that is brittle at best. You have to understand the underlying conflict at the emotional level where it actually occurs, and resolve it there. Again, you face the problem that you cannot discuss these things openly, because people would lose face by talking about their emotions. So you have to talk about interests, percentages, service level agreements, projects plans, and the virtues of IT standards in order to make one person stop crying internally, and to make the other person give the shovel back  internally, and so on.

The visual analogy that comes to my mind is minimal-invasive surgery with probes, where the surgeons operative through several layers of skin, fat, and muscle tissue without violating them – a highly indirect way of operating that requires an especially skilled practitioner but spares everybody a bloody mess and huge scars.

The business value of empathy

Empathy is, among many other things, that special skill:

  • to understand and address a conflict or problem at the level that is never openly discussed but is really its core – especially in difficult situations where the stakes are high
  • to operate successfully at that level and resolve the underlying problem without creating a bloody mess and loss of skin or face
  • to use a crisis as an opportunity to take a relationship to a new level of trust and cooperation – with lots of leeway to be exploited in search of the win-win scenario.

Post scriptum: Empathy is many other things

Empathy has many other aspects that are directly valuable for success – I might even say: necessary for survival – in business. These might be covered in other blogs, and I'm just going to scratch the surface here:

  • To be a real leader, you need to have a deep understanding of what makes the people you lead tick. Firstly, you might need that understanding in order to manipulate them. (Let's be frank!) But more importantly, they need to feel that you understand them in order to follow you loyally through thick and thin. A leader without empathy is just a tyrant or a bureaucrat.
  • As software developers, we strive to build solutions that are actually valuable to customers, users, and stakeholders. Good design requires a deep understanding of these people's perspectives, including the pain points, limitations they face and their hopes and desires. Steve Jobs changed the world with brilliant design: He was able to turn mobile technology into a mass phenomenon that changes society and culture profoundly primarily because he understood people's dreams and desires before they were even aware of them. That's empathy.