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Link to video: .

” href=”http://www.engagingleader.com/what-pickle-juice-teaches-about-empathetic-thinking/”>How to Use Mirror Neurons to Influence People

I have a jar of dill pickles in my office to help me share about the power of empathy in communicating for influence.

My dad tells a story from when he was a kid about going over to his grandmother’s house after baseball practice, being very thirsty and going straight to the refrigerator. Dad pulled out a pitcher of what he thought was cool, refreshing lemonade and poured himself a nice, tall glass.

Now, what Dad didn’t realize was that it was not lemonade in that pitcher but what we commonly refer to as “pickle juice.” That is the vinegar and salt and other seasonings that are left in the jar after you’ve eaten all the pickles. Now, apparently his grandmother believed in “waste not, want not,” and she didn’t even want to waste her pickle juice. So Dad was expecting the sweet, tart taste of lemonade when he took a great big gulp.

Wow! Well, you can imagine Dad’s surprise at the taste of that pickle juice, and I’ll bet you might have been surprised that you possibly tasted pickle juice in the back of your own mouth as well, or maybe your face reflected some of the facial gestures that I was making as I tasted that pickle juice. Why would that be, since I was the one tasting it, instead of you?

The answer is in what science refers to as “mirror neurons” or “empathy neurons.” These were discovered by accident about 20 years ago. The point of mirror neurons is that we literally mirror each other in corresponding regions of our brain. And this doesn’t just involve actions like tasting pickle juice. It also involves thoughts and feelings as well.

This brings us to the power of empathy. When we are communicating with another person or a group of people, if we can be thinking empathetically, that is, if we can be truly trying to understand their thoughts and feelings and allow ourselves to be influenced by their point of view, we are much more likely to trigger their mirror neurons and get a similar response from them. That is, they are going to be more empathetic to our perspective. They’re going to be more likely to be influenced by the way we’re thinking.

The opposite is if we’re simply owning our position and trying to persuade them to our point of view, they are more likely to own their position and put up a wall and defend their point of view.

Or they might say, “It’s pointless arguing with this person, let me just give in.” But they wouldn’t actually support or buy into that perspective.

It’s much more powerful if we can mutually arrive at a destination. And that happens as a result of empathetic thinking and mirror neurons because they are more likely to mirror that empathetic feeling that we have going on inside of us. That’s what pickle juice can teach us about the power of empathy.

I talk more about Powerful Empathy in Episode 4 of the Engaging Leader podcast, which you can find at engagingleader.com.

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Link to video: Do You Understand Your Target Audience? How to Use an Empathy Map

On Episode 1 of the Engaging Leader podcast, we talked about the seven habits of highly engaging leaders, which of course is based on Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. We looked at each of those habits and explored how there is a communication principle behind each one that when we apply it can make us more engaging leaders.

I want to talk a little bit more about Habit No. 5 and specifically about a tool that I would like to share that’s kind of a fun way to put this habit into practice. Habit 5 was “seek first to be – to understand, then to be understood.” You see, it’s so easy to get that backwards, and most of the time that’s exactly what we do. But it’s important to seek first to understand, and Covey always talked about empathy.

Empathy is a huge principle when it comes to leadership and communication. It is about doing our best to understand where that person is coming from: in regard to what we’re trying to lead them about, and in terms of their relationship with us as well.

Empathy involves listening so well to the point that you would be willing to allow yourself to be influenced or impacted by the person or people that you are listening to. It’s a very powerful principle.

And in communication and in leadership, seeking first to understand means we really have to get to know our audience. Are all the stakeholders involved in the thing that we’re leading about? We need to understand them as best as we can. And one kind of a fun initial step that I’ve found, which I discovered it in a book called Gamestorming, is called an empathy map. It was developed by a company called Xplane.

This is not going to replace rigorous scientific research to fully analyze an audience, but it’s a simple little exercise that only takes 15 or 20 minutes. It’s great in a group setting, and it’s going to help the planning process to focus on people, which is where the focus belongs.

It can also help you identify gaps in your understanding about the audience, where you realize, “Hmm, maybe we should go do some research to understand that better, maybe some demographic research or maybe a survey or a focus group or something like that.”

But if you are with a group or by yourself creating a communication plan, this little 15 or 20-minute exercise is a great way to really get an idea of the audience and also frame the whole rest of the conversation because you can keep this up on the wall and refer people back to it later on in the planning process and say, well, that’s not really how our audience is going to feel.

Now, the first step in this little exercise is to think of a character. Choose an audience that you are trying to engage and think of kind of a character or characteristic of the audience, or maybe even just a stereotypical person that represents that audience. I represented a coal miner here, because I’m thinking back on a planning session that we did with a large coal mining company who was trying to improve the health of their employees, trying to get their employees to take more initiative and responsibility, take some steps toward improving their health.

So you think of that person, and this company is made up mostly of men so I drew a man. I’m not a great artist, but I put a coal-miner hat on him, and give this person a name. I called him Chris Coalminer. So at any point in the conversation we can say, “That’s not really what Chris Coalminer would say if he saw this happen or if he heard this.”

And then you want to ask a question to help us try to get inside Chris’ head, a question that frames the discussion because we don’t need to know everything about Chris. We’re just focusing on one specific thing here in this short exercise. And I would encourage you to make that question as concrete as possible. Let’s not just imagine Chris asking, “Why should I care about my health?” That’s too abstract. If we could think of one or two initial steps that we’d like Chris to take down the road of improving his health, what would they be?

How about, Why should I get a health assessment and then a follow-up one-on-one consultation with the doctor?” So imagine we want to tell Chris, “As a company, we provide free biometric screenings. We’ll draw your blood. We’ll weigh you and so forth, and we’ll run that through some epidemiological calculations and help you get an idea of your health and also help your doctor figure out what are the most important steps you can take to live longer.”

So let’s ask that question very specifically. And then let’s start answering it from the perspective of different aspects of Chris’ being. What’s he seeing? What’s he saying? What’s he doing? What’s he feeling? And what’s he hearing?

And as we ask those questions think about, what does Chris want? What are his needs? What motivates him? How does he feel about the subject of health or specifically about health assessments? Does having his blood drawn bother him; is he afraid of needles? How does he feel about us as the leaders who are asking him to take this action? Is there some kind of trust issue that could be in the way?

So as we think about those things and then you just write it down on a Post-It Note. Anybody on your team can just come up and stick this up there. I like Post-It Notes because they let even the quiet people in the room come up and put something on there. They don’t have to be a good speaker or forceful to get their ideas across. But you want to collect as much data from the room about what we do know about Chris Coalminer.

And so someone might say, “Chris is seeing that there’s drug testing going on and some people get fired because their employer finds out that they’re having drugs, and Chris might be concerned that these health assessments are a disguised way of doing more drug testing. And that’s going to cause him not only to be concerned but also to talk to other people about that.”

And someone else might say, “If Chris is doing drugs then he should be concerned. We want to fire him.” But his negativity is going to come across to other people, whether they’re doing drugs or not. It’s going to give him some fuel to work the grapevine to our disadvantage in terms of accomplishing that goal. So that’s worth thinking about.

On the other hand, someone in the room might put up, “I hear Chris Coalminer saying that this company really cares about me. A lot of our people came from other coal mining companies and they recognized a real difference here, that we really do think of our employees as flesh-and-blood human human beings. And we care about them as human beings.” And so that’s a positive in our favor there. That’s a good thing to keep in mind.

But how is Chris feeling? Well, he’s tired. He’s just worked a 10-hour shift, and we’re asking him to hang out for another half-hour and let us stick a needle in him. That’s worth thinking about that as a potential obstacle.

Also, Chris is worried. Okay, maybe he’s not doing drugs, but he’s worried that “What if they find out that I have some kind of heart problem and so the company fires me over that?” So that’s something to think about when we’re getting inside his head, because we can manage that and talk about how we’re going to keep his data private. It’s going to be between him and his doctor. The employer won’t ever know, and things like that.

So I find this is a great way to bring that Habit 5 to life about seeking first to understand, then to be understood, because it’s a fun way as a team to get a lot of this data up and then make use of that in your ongoing planning.

For more information about all those seven habits, I encourage you to check out Episode 1 of the Engaging Leader podcast, at engagingleader.com.

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