The fundamental question: Do you want answers or empathy?

Photo: Philip Wojazer, Reuters

Much of human conflict can be traced to a fundamental misunderstanding: giving people answers when they want empathy, or vice versa.

Think about it. If you are in a serious relationship, what happens when your significant other comes to you in a state of upset about something happening in their life?

When someone comes to you, upset, with a problem, they don’t necessarily want a solution. They may want a hug. They may want you to just sit and listen sympathetically. They may want empathy. If you dive right in with “Have you tried this?” or “Let’s figure this out,” you risk being portrayed as a heartless dolt. (Engineers, who are problem-solvers by habit and by nature, get caught in this trap all the time.)

Regrettably, the reverse is also a challenge. If you say “Gee, I’m so sorry honey, that sounds awful,” you may end up with a similarly impatient response: “Forget that, how can I fix it? Don’t you have any useful ideas?”

(As I have learned from long experience, there is only one solution: ask your friend or sweetheart “Are you looking to solve the problem, or do you just want to vent?” Of course, this only works if you’ve previously discussed the challenge here with the other person, so they know why you are asking.)

This is not just a problem in relationships. It is a problem in customer service as well. When a person calls a company with a problem, customer service reps need to be skilled at determining what the customer needs. (They are always looking for solutions, but sometimes they need shout a bit first, and hear some actual sympathy from the person on the other end of the conversation.)

As I learned in my research for The Age of Intent, the book on virtual agents and chatbots that I wrote with P.V. Kannan, this is a particular challenge for artificially intelligent customer service bots. They have gotten pretty good at identifying customers’ problems and delivering solutions. They are not effective at empathy, though. It turns out they can easily recognize a customer who is too upset to get satisfaction from a machine: those customers typically respond with profanity, all caps, and exclamation points. At that point, they turn the customer over to a person who can help. (If only it was so easy in our relationships with other humans.)

What’s the appropriate response when your nation has suffered a grievous injury?

Yes. Regrettably, we are going to talk about this in the context of the fire at Notre Dame de Paris.

Everyone who has ever visited Notre Dame has felt the incredible power of the place. It is perhaps the most significant building in France, as far as the French identity goes. It is at the same time an 800-year-old symbol of French history and character, a religious icon for the nation’s ancestral faith, a huge tourist attraction, and a massively impressive piece of architecture and art (the statues and stained glass windows are breathtaking and historic). From far away, its profile is spectacular and recognizable; from close up, the gargoyles and stonework are unique and soaked in significance.

Nothing in America is anywhere near that old, but to come close you’d have to wrap up the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Washington Monument, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral into one. America just doesn’t have anything as iconic as Notre Dame.

So when it caught fire yesterday, all French people and many of the rest of us who’ve been there and feel solidarity with them were wounded. We felt sick. And we felt sympathy for the French people in their loss.

You don’t have to ask what the right thing to say in such a moment is. The only thing to say is something that communicates: “We’re so sorry, we understand how painful this is.”

Here’s what Barack Obama said:

Empathy, respect, and hope.

Here’s what John Kerry said:

Hope and solidarity.

Here’s what Donald Trump said:

Sympathy and . . . a suggestion on what to do to fix it. A stupid suggestion — water tankers would do more harm than good, according to the French Fire Department — but that’s not the point. The point is that Trump is trying to give advice to a nation that is in pain.

To understand how wrong this is, imagine for a moment that the French President is making a statement on September 11, 2001 regarding the planes flying into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Three thousand people have died. Lower Manhattan is a cloud of dust. The Pentagon is smoking. And the President of France says, “You know, if you put better locks on the cockpit doors and improve fire-suppression in your buildings, you wouldn’t have nearly as many people dying in these attacks.”

If you can imagine how that would feel, you have some idea of how the French people feel about Trump’s “helpful” tweet.

Whether it’s international relations or strife in your own home, learn when to be helpful and when to be empathetic. It will save your relationships and cut down on the pain your loved ones are feeling.

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