Exercises for work’s toughest situations

November 2, 2022

There are so many people out there that parrot some form of this cliched management advice: “Have empathy.” “Understand others.” “Be human.” That’s great and all, but without actionable advice on how to do that, it’s not much good. It doesn’t get any more actionable than this. In this interview, Maggie Leung, VP of Content at Nerdwallet, shares 13 sets of questions you can ask yourself in just about any interpersonal scenario (whether you’re managing, hiring or working together) to be more empathetic and effective.

As with any other learned skill, you can make considering other people’s motivations an automatic habit if you do it enough. This can help equalize power dynamics and create a competitive advantage throughout a career. Leung devised sets of questions for each thorny work scenario she could think of as a place to start that would ensure compassion, understanding and a constructive approach from the beginning.

“When I understand and can articulate what someone needs from me, that makes it easier to say, ‘Makes sense. This is what I need from you.’ Then it’s a fair exchange rather than ‘I’m just demanding things from you,’”.

Dynamic empathy isn’t just about understanding what’s going on with someone else, but actually doing or saying something about it. It helps you move forward.

For the most part, asking the sets of questions below is an internal exercise — something you do with yourself to engineer successful conversations before they even happen. They are designed to help you tease apart complex scenarios that might be influenced by high emotions so you can see clearly, identify arguments or suggestions that are more likely to resonate with the other people involved, and establish multiple paths for success. When asked in sequence and truly considered, these questions help you see further down the road so you can avoid obstacles. At other times, it might be appropriate to ask these questions directly to others. You can decide what will work best based on the personalities involved. Always, though, your goal should be finding common ground. Regardless, it’s also helpful to jot down or take quick notes on your answers to these questions in advance. That helps you externalize your feelings about the situation, see things more concretely, and remember the points you want to make in an eventual conversation.

There are no right or wrong answers to Leung’s questions. It’s the exercise of thinking through them that provides the value. That way, you’re always able to anticipate and work with another person's response — no matter what it might be.

Don’t be deterred even if you encounter resistance. Keep working the questions and modeling the candor you want to see. “If you keep putting yourself out there, you’ll get results,”.

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