Assistants have buckets full of empathy; you wouldn’t be in the job if you didn’t. What I find is that empathy can often be taken advantage of by people who don’t respect what we do – be it, that colleague who wants your time or that Executive who doesn’t understand your role. Empathy can quickly diminish when you don’t feel respected, or quite frankly someone pisses you off. So compassion is essential – you have to figure out why someone is acting the way that they are and deal with them accordingly. But what if that person is annoying? We all work with people that annoy us, but still, we must rise above and be compassionate. You might be tempted to avoid people like this, but that isn’t always possible. So instead here are a few suggestions that will help you show empathy with even the most annoying person!
Cognitive empathy vs emotional empathy
I like this explanation from the Harvard Business Review:
There are two types of empathy: cognitive empathy, the ability to understand another person’s perspective, and emotional empathy, the ability to feel what someone else feels. “Both of these tend to shut down when you feel annoyed or frustrated,” Annie McKee says. But you must fight against that.
- To summon cognitive empathy for an annoying colleague, McKee recommends generating theories that might explain “why this person says what he says, thinks what he thinks, and acts the way he acts. Unearth your curiosity,” she says. Ask yourself: “What motivates this person? What excites and inspires him?” Go “beyond your own worldview” and reflect on “what may be in his cultural background, education, family situation, or day-to-day pressures that’s causing him to behave this way.” Remember: The goal here is to “understand this person’s perspective,” Fernandez adds. “It doesn’t mean you have to adopt it, validate it, or agree with it, but you do have to acknowledge it.”
- To muster emotional empathy for that colleague, “find something in them to care about,” McKee says. One way to deal with someone who irritates you is to “picture that person as a six-year-old,” she adds. In other words, remember that “they’re only human.” The hypotheses you generated to explain your colleague’s behaviour could be helpful here, too, according to Fernandez: “Maybe this person is stressed or under pressure, or maybe this person is just not having a very good day.” You don’t have to “become a psychologist and get into their childhood,” but you do have to make an effort to experience “emotional resonance.” The result is often, “I get it.”
In my mind, diplomacy is ‘the art of dealing with people sensitively and tactfully.’ It is the ability to communicate with people using an approach that considers their feelings and potential reaction to the situation. It is a skill that allows Assistants to find common ground with every person at every level of business, even those who are annoying!
This is the first step. Show everyone kindness, even annoying people! If there is one particular person who you don’t like to be around, make yourself say hello to them every morning. Go out of your way to show them kindness and compassion. The more you do it, the easier it will get, and you might even stop assuming the worst about them. You can choose to be empathetic because you are in control of your emotions. Choice empathy and kindness or frustration and annoyance!
Ooofff, patience is a tough one. When your annoying colleague asks you the same question 20 times, or turns up to the meeting, late, again, it is your human right to be less than empathetic! But don’t. Be patient. Breath, reset and go again.
Get to know them
This might be a difficult pill to swallow but have you tried to get to know this person? It may sound like a horrible situation, but it might be worthwhile taking them out for a drink after work or a lunchtime coffee. You never know they may be completely different outside of the office, they might be nice! If you do this and you find yourself hating them even more, at least you tried. Go back to showing them empathy but don’t worry about befriending them!
Have a conversation with them
Can you confront the person yourself? If you have the confidence to talk with them directly, then you should. Don’t be overly aggressive but do be firm and tell them how their behaviour impacts on you. They may not be aware of their actions, and a conversation might nip it in the bud before your relationship becomes a severe problem. If they are particularly tricky, they may try to brush off their behaviour or explain it away but stick to your guns and make sure you come to a conclusion that enables you to get on with your job. If you find it challenging to talk face to face or you don’t have the confidence, it might help to send them an email. Explain that you are nervous about broaching the subject with them directly and are writing your feelings down in the hope that you can resolve any future problems.