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Difficult conversation? Advice from the Defense Dept.

Posted by Paul Hellman  May 10, 2013 11:00 AM

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My daughter's boyfriend, post-college, is trapped in a room with me, which is not good. I'm interrogating him. We'll return to him later.

"Empathize with the enemy," said Robert McNamara, former U.S. Secretary of Defense. You'd expect a Defense Secretary to be tough and, well, defensive. But for McNamara, empathy was a major life lesson.

What is empathy, anyway? It's not sympathy. In war, after you empathize with the enemy, you might kill him. Empathy means, like a good chess player, you study the board from all angles.

How do you do that?

"Be the other person," said psychologist Fritz Perls. Pretend, for a minute or two, you're him or her.

Suppose I'm having trouble with my graphic designer, Maxine. Her output is late and doesn't meet expectations. Maxine and I need to talk.

But first, following Fritz Perls's advice, I imagine being Maxine: "Ok," I say, "I'm Maxine. And Paul's right, I'm a complete screw-up."

No, no, no. That's not Maxine, that's me.

Maxine might say, "Paul doesn't give me enough time. And he's not clear; I'm never sure what he wants."

Is she right? Well, maybe. And even if she's not, it helps to anticipate her perspective.

Usually, we're so trapped in our own perspective, we don't even consider it a "perspective." We just assume we're right.

Let's go back to that boyfriend in the living room. How'd he get there?

One Sunday, my daughter, Becca, and her boyfriend, Max (yes, an alias) came for lunch, and I agreed to help Max prep for a job interview.

If you're a father, that's a wonderful assignment. You get to take Max into the living room, and ask him anything.

I could say, "So, Max, what are your intentions with my daughter?"

Max (puzzled): "Are they really going to ask that?"

Me: "Max, they could ask you ANYTHING."

Max and I rehearsed for a few hours. Then, as he and Becca got ready to leave, I wished him luck, and asked him to email how it went.

"Ok," he said, "but if you don't hear from me, I'm sure Rebecca will keep you posted." Then they drove off.

I was surprised by Max's response. "Is it so hard to email?" I asked my wife.

"Well," she said, "imagine you're him, and your interview goes badly—do you really want to tell Becca's father?"

Turns out, Max got the job.

But not the girl. My daughter just married a lovely man, very empathic, who understands many things, including email.

Tip: Shift perspective. (You can always return to yours.)

© Copyright 2013 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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