The Importance of Balancing Empathy and Authenticity

“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” — Stephen Covey

“Great,” said the woman in front of me. “Now, one last question. How do you feel about occasional late nights—till around ten-thirty-ish?”

“Sure,” I heard myself respond in an enthusiastic voice. “I completely understand the needs of the business and that the company has to do what’s required to stay competitive and to service its clients across the globe.”

“Thank you for understanding. I’m glad you really get us,” the woman smiled at me. “We’ll be in touch then.”

I left the office with a bit of an uneasy feeling, which I couldn’t quite define at first. I was rewinding the interview in my head, trying to find the root of my discontent. A few days into this exercise, I found it: I had committed to do something I wasn’t quite certain about. And to my own surprise, I had taken upon the obligation without any hesitation.

I was eager to get the job, true—but there was something else. Having spent years in the financial industry, I understood quite well the reasoning behind such out-of-the-ordinary requests. And I did what I usually do when I communicate with others: I tried to grasp their perspective, walk in their shoes—and help. But this process sometimes happens at a personal cost.

Instead of leaping to acceptance, I probably should have probed more and perhaps tried to bargain for better provisions. I should have asked if the company would arrange for a ride home on these late nights or inquired about how occasional “occasional late nights” would be or how understanding the business would be of my own needs, given that I have a small child. Instead, I was way too considerate too quickly.

I was offered the job. I ended up going in another direction, but the experience made me think about agreeability and beyond. Does my “understanding” have something to do with my introversion? Would an extrovert have handled things differently? Should I consider myself lucky that I was chosen among other candidates, or should I be upset with myself that I couldn’t negotiate better terms?

Well… let’s examine both sides.

According to the prevalent opinions—whether offered by scientists or self-help gurus, or coming from our own real-life experiences—perspective-taking is highly beneficial:

  • It helps us reach better decisions and solutions by widening our horizons
  • It makes us more open to the world and less ego-focused
  • It shows respect for the other party’s opinions and demonstrates an ability to collaborate
  • In some situations, it may also make us stand out from the crowd. By demonstrating our concern and care, we may come across as more empathetic and compassionate, which are real gems in our predominantly self-centered world.

In other words, trying to walk in someone else’s shoes makes us more human, warm, accepting, friendly, and considerate—which makes us better prospective hires.

So here, I’m also going to make a somewhat daring (but also perhaps unsurprising to many) statement: introversion and perspective-taking are close allies. In fact, we, the introverts, are uniquely suited to the task of  walking in others’ shoes. There is an abundance of support for this claim, but let’s state the most compelling evidence in favor.

Introverts have a natural tendency to observe initially rather than to engage. We try to get to know others from a distance first by reading cues—gestures, choices of attire, wording, facial expressions—all of which helps us gain a more profound understanding of the other person. When we do start communicating with them, we can better connect and find common ground. It’s not that extroverts don’t read cues—they do, but they do it much faster (and hence, their conclusions are more prone to be hasty). Introverts devote more time to the fine intricacy of perspective-taking, which often leads to more informed insights.

Introverts tend to be more contemplative. This preference for thinking things over, rather than acting spontaneously, further entails taking into consideration all possible alternatives and solutions. Exploring the alternatives typically involves a willingness to understand, weigh in, and accept our counterparty’s opinions and thoughts.

Introverts embrace active listening. Active listening requires a deeper focus on others, a more elaborate analysis of nonverbal cues, and more proactive (rather than passive) attention on our opponents. In other words, it requires a more intense presence. Active listening also fosters perspective-taking as it often necessitates empathy, understanding, compassion, and a willingness to engage with the other—and to help, if needed.

But before we all unanimously conclude that practicing the ability to walk in another’s shoes is constructive and helpful to all and call it a day, we must also acknowledge that engaging in it may come with some unfavorable-for-us outcomes. As with the case of my job interview, it may tip over the territory of too much agreeability, cordiality, amiability, and willingness to be liked. In other words, perspective taking may help us appear to be warm and accepting, but in certain situations, it may also become counterproductive.

To avoid such pitfalls, we need to recognize and be cognizant of a few things:

Assess the importance of the discussion’s outcome to you. How willing are you to compromise, and how far can you scale back your own interests and ego before it becomes too much? Sometimes, we may just want a positive result at all costs (as in getting a job offer), but even in these situations we still must carefully ponder the commitments we make. There is nothing worse than showing consideration and empathy in the moment to gain from it and then not being able to carry out promises in the long term.

Respect the line. There is a fine line (but a line nonetheless) between appreciating and understanding another’s opinions, thoughts, and beliefs and placing others’ wants before ours—both in the world of business and in personal relationships. We all have made certain sacrifices for all kinds of different reasons—out of love for our closest ones, out of dedication or passion for our work, out of obligation. But walking in another’s shoes or taking another’s perspective is different. It simply means “I’m listening; I respect your point of view; I understand my opinion is not always the right one; and I’m open to further discussion. Hope you are too.” We have to be mindful of the danger that over-the-top empathy or being too agreeable may turn us into what some label a “doormat”—which is not likely to bring a favorable outcome to anyone.

Furthermore, a willingness to cooperate shouldn’t translate to a one-sided compromise. While it may require engagement in some delicate give-and-take play or tit-for-tat negotiations, it should always be a two-way road. Even if you understand the reasoning behind your counterpart’s ideas or requests, you still must stand up for yourself and call for the same level of appreciation and respect from the other party. Simply put, there is a lack of balance when we are willing to accept an external perspective without receiving reciprocal support. In these situations, it’s usually best to address the matter openly and emphasize your desire to further engage—but only if you see equal readiness.

Gaining understanding of someone else’s perspective is, undoubtedly, a highly desirable and frequently even necessary ability to master. It not only broadens our horizons but also makes us more humane, compassionate, caring, and embracing of the world. An introvert’s natural tendency towards reflection offers a foundation that can nurture such insight and reverence toward others. But we should always be cautious not to turn perspective-taking of others’ views into perspective-foregoing of our own. The advantages of building bridges to reach other people lie in our ability to just as much accept and respect ourselves.