A conversation with David Kasch, PhD about empathy, acknowledgement, and pie
A little context to get this conversation off the ground: David is a leadership development coach, who helps people at all stages in their career practice the fine art of compassionate, inclusive, and even vulnerable leadership. He’s a certified Brené Brown Dare to Lead™facilitator who focuses on the tough relational skills we all need to be successful as leaders.
Sarah: David, thank you for sitting down with me to chat about things that lead to empowerment for teams and individuals.
David: My pleasure, plus I live here.
Sarah: True, for those that hadn’t put it together: we’re married, we live in the same house, and we often sit at this very table to discuss things ranging from global politics to who’s getting the kid ready for school.
David: It’s a nice table, and yeah — the important stuff.
Sarah: Alright, on to the topic at hand. I was slacking with someone I work with, Nadeem Waheed, who is just the nicest guy ever. He had this great line that stuck with me about how someone could be “empowered through acknowledgement.” We were talking about teams having a seat at the table, and Nadeem noted that acknowledgement by certain groups can help others take them more seriously.
That phrase “empowered through acknowledgement” resonated so tremendously. I instantly wanted to blow it up to apply to everything — relationships, team structures, gender, race, ability — really any space where one person or group holds some kind of hierarchy over another and can essentially legitimize someone in the eyes of others (whether real or perceived).
David: I think that’s right, though I would argue that acknowledgement leads first to empathy, which ultimately leads to empowerment.
Sarah: Ooh, say more about that.
David: You get to empathy through acknowledgment and validation: acknowledgement of a person’s feelings and validation of the experience they’re having. And when I say “validating experiences,” I mean validating different experiences. That’s the onramp.
When you’re acknowledged, someone is saying, “I see you.” It doesn’t come with any judgement, it simply conveys that you’re there. And that might sound basic or like it’s not enough to spark anything, but it’s where all relationships start. “You are there. I see you.”
When you’re validated, it’s like saying, “I see you and I hear your perspective.”
Once you hear them, you can appreciate who they are, what they’re experiencing. Hearing them. Empathizing with them.
I think people underestimate how important empathy really is. And it can’t happen without acknowledgement and validation.
Sarah: So acknowledgement is being seen; empathy is being heard; empowerment is being… what, valued?
David: I’d say included.
Sarah: Ah, that sparks something for me. I’m working with a group of design and product leads on improving working relationships, and the end goal is better inclusion. We started by acknowledging the issues with a really focused retrospective, had conversations around those insights that led to empathy… and now we’re working on taking steps on all sides for inclusion.
David: That’s it exactly. It’s not easy, but you won’t get very far on empowerment and inclusion without acknowledgement and empathy.
Sarah: Some people think that acknowledging someone means giving up something. If you’re there, that means less of whatever for me. Space, time, attention, opportunities. I think that’s why those same “some people” are less willing to acknowledge someone else in their sphere. It’s really about the fear of losing something.
David: Right, but it’s like they say: this isn’t pie. There’s no limit to the slices available. As long as people act like it’s finite, they’ll keep shutting others out and if not overtly refusing to acknowledge them, being afraid to say, “Yes, you are also here.” Because if you’re here too, that means less for me — except that’s not how life works at all. Even when it might seem that way.
So the pie is really more like pi, if you can humor me with some math wordplay here. I know you married me for my wordplay.
Sarah: That is accurate.
David: You can infinitely acknowledge others. You have infinite empathy within you. The potential to empower others is infinite.
When you empower someone else it’s like taking a slice of your pie, giving it to them, and getting a whole pie back. Their contributions allow them to give back way more than the slice they got.
Sarah: I love that. I’ve found that empowering others usually has the opposite effect of what people seem to fear. Lifting up others makes you look better, rather than taking anything away from you.
David: Not just look better, be better! Really learn something new.
Empathy toward others means you’re willing to acknowledge and validate someone else’s feelings and experiences, which are likely different from your own, and you’ll learn something there.
Empathy toward yourself also means acknowledging the feelings and experiences that you’re having, which can be the biggest education there is.
Sarah: That’s the hard work. Acknowledging your own experiences and feelings. Sometimes that brings people to harsh realizations they’re not willing to have. People go to therapy for this.
David: Empathy can be hard because it means opening up. Opening up yourself to different perspectives and experiences. Opening up opportunities to learn new information and see new insights.
It doesn’t mean giving up or giving in. What empathy isn’t, is weakness. It’s not a sign of caving or retreating.
Sarah: People do sometimes believe that empathizing means letting go of your own feelings. Like, being able to appreciate someone else’s perspective somehow diminishes their own.
David: You don’t have to give up or give in to have empathy. You don’t have to agree with them. You don’t have to give up your values or sense of purpose.
Sarah: Although I would imagine often times empathy leads to changed beliefs.
David: For sure.
Sarah: So how does empathy empower if someone isn’t willing to agree? Don’t you need buy-in for empowerment?
David: Empathy leads to connection. That connection makes buy-in possible, and empowerment comes from there.
Sarah: So there’s really five stages here: acknowledge, empathize, connect, buy-in, empower. Nadeem was right, there’s just a more nuanced path between acknowledgement and empowerment.
David: Right, because connection and buy-in are about perspective. But empathy and acknowledgment are about intent. Any good negotiator will tell you that intention is how you get past conflict around differing perspectives.
Sarah: Ok, so you’re saying that we start with understanding intention and then there’s space for changing people’s perspectives?
David: Yeah, exactly. When people get stuck on their positions, the place you have to go is: what was the intention behind that position? If we can’t agree where to go for dinner, we need understand what’s behind our positions. Is it the type of food? The ambiance? It’s a lot easier to change someone’s mind if you can understand each other’s real intentions.
Sarah: In design we’d talk about what the actual need is, vs. what someone says they want. What are they really asking for when they suggest we make a button red? They want prominence. Not necessarily “red.” What does someone really mean when they say they want more meetings? They’re craving connection. Having empathy lets us get to the root of the ask.
David: You’re acknowledging their intention. And to get back to something we said earlier, you’re acknowledging their contribution, which is validating.
Sarah: Yeah, let’s get back to the beginning for a sec. So you’re saying that in a situation where someone needs to be empowered, the first step is to get the other side to acknowledge them and their position.
David: Right, then help the other side empathize with your position. They might not agree right away, but getting them to say it out loud is surprisingly powerful.
Sarah: Like that old retail trick of getting a customer to hold something, making it more likely for them to buy it. Oooh, buy-in.
Sarah: But does this get into blame-the-victim territory? It sounds like it’s your own responsibility to make someone empathize with you.
David: Ah, no quite the opposite. Getting the other side to acknowledge is opening a door. But you need something else to get to anything like full empowerment.
Sarah: Then how does acknowledgement actually help someone who’s feeling less than empowered?
David: Thats’s where the other person comes in. They have the opportunity to validate and get curious about the first person’s experience.
There’s one person with more power who has the opportunity to share that power and get more of it in return.
Sarah: Oh, the pie.
David: The pie.
Sarah: So there’s no magic way to get from acknowledgement to empathy to empowerment on your own. It’s a two-way street.
David: Yep. Both sides have to be willing and open. It’s like I said: empathy is openness.
Sarah: And infinite.
David: Like pi.