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Image by Peter Secan

More Specific Agreements


“A mushrooming demand for employees with affective, non-logical abilities spans the economy. Empathy—sensing at a deep level the feeling and thoughts of others—is the foundation.”


“Empathy among American college students has declined significantly over the past 30 years . . . research gives little reason to believe it will increase as they grow older.”


Listen up! These non-empathetic people are about to join your workforces. What will you do when they are not empathetic, considerate, respectful or even just civil? They can’t all be fired. It’s hard to tell in advance who is empathetic and who is not, and it’s hard to teach empathy after people’s attitudes have been established. Nonetheless:


“Non-cognitive skills such as team working, emotional maturity, and other interpersonal skills are as important as proficiency in English and mathematics.” *


Where do people learn these skills? If they’re lucky, they learn them early, in the home or in pre-school and play groups. In fact, studies show that small children have an innate sense of fairness and thoughtfulness, which unfortunately they un-learn as they get older. With smaller families, though, there is less need to get along with anyone, and with helicopter parents, children and adolescents have less need to learn empathy and team work; mom and dad are always there to argue for them. At work, the emphasis on technology-based everything, from meetings to reports to working at home, also reduces the need to get along because it reduces the need to work with actual people, which requires empathy.


Some schools have started programs on conflict resolution or peer mediation not just to address conflict in the school, but to foster expectations of respect, compassion, empathy, and kindness in all situations. This expectation of empathy can then be taken into the workplace so that the people you hire have the experience of working on a team, of being persuasive without being a bully, of negotiating resolutions, and being respectful.


Unfortunately, peer mediation programs are rarely established at the college level when students are beginning to think about careers where these skills are especially important; there is no opportunity to practice the very skills that are needed in the workplace. Some schools have an ombuds office or a counseling center, but these offices can feel too formal to students who just want to know how to handle an interpersonal disagreement or what to say to people who really bother them. Going to a teacher for advice might feel like escalating the conflict and being thought of as someone who “tattles” on others. In some cases, mediation is considered the first step in a disciplinary process, undermining its voluntary, collaborative basis.


I’d love to see peer mediation programs on college campuses so that students can learn the skills of empathy and collaborative conflict resolution before they get to the workplace. If mediation is too formal a first step, what about a drop-in center where trained students, often the high school peer mediators whose expertise is lost when they graduate and just when it is most needed, can offer conflict coaching with mediation following if the students want to try it. We can certainly begin to require courses in mediation and conflict resolution, courses that go beyond nodding your head to indicate active listening, that include teamwork and negotiation, that help students think about personal identity and how conflict can be based on clashing identities, classes where thoughtful, respectful, compassionate language is practiced.


When organizations hire for empathy, they should have a huge pool of applicants to choose from, and we should be finding ways to increase that pool.   



* “Employers Are Looking for New Hires With Something Extra: Empathy,” Geoff Colvin, Fortune magazine, 9/22/2014, p. 55

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