Posts Tagged ‘communication’

Learning about learning

Education, Presentation | Posted by Doc List
Jun 01 2016

I spend a significant chunk of my time thinking about how to make my “training” more effective. I quote the word because I don’t really think of it as “training”. I mostly think of it as “guiding learning”. Yes, it doesn’t hurt if I’m an expert (or at least reasonably knowledgeable) about the topic. However, being an expert doesn’t instantly confer expert teaching/training/facilitation skills on me.

The thing is that it’s about the learning. In order to deliver effective learning experiences (you call them what you like, I just can’t refer to them as “training”), it’s important that I understand how the brain learns. Yes, I said “how the brain learns,” not “how people learn.” Sure there have been studies about individual preferences (visual, auditory, kinesthetic). However the more recent studies in neuroscience reveal some very valuable lessons.

“Another recent study at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Department of Radiology, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that the structural core of the brain receives sensory information from different regions and then assembles bits of data into a complete picture that becomes a memory of an event.This memory is strengthened by multiple sensory inputs.For example, if we both see and hear something, we are more likely to remember it than if we only hear it.

If we experience an emotional reaction to something – fear, anger, laughter or love – that emotion becomes part of the memory and strengthens it dramatically.In recalling memories, subjects who had experienced an emotional reaction were far more likely to remember the event and with higher accuracy than those who simply witnessed an event without any emotional attachment.That explains why highly emotional events – birth, marriage, divorce and death – become unforgettable.

What does this neuroscience research suggest about learning?We need to ensure that learning engages all the senses and taps the emotional side of the brain, through methods like humor, storytelling, group activities and games.Emphasis on the rational and logical alone does not produce powerful memories.”

from “How the Brain Learns” at

Sometimes I do things very intentionally when I’m in front of a class.

  • I tell stories, because research shows that stories help people learn.
  • I am (try to be 😉 ) humorous and amusing because laughter helps people learn.
  • I have people engage with each other because the shared experience helps people learn.

Overall, my goal is to create an immersive, engaging, memorable learning experience.

I have learned from and integrate the work of people like Sharon Bowman (“Training from the BACK of the Room!” and “Using Brain Science To Make Training Stick“), Dave Meier (“The Accelerated Learning Handbook“), and John Medina (“Brain Rules“). When I develop new classes, I consider all of the lessons and think about how to make the experience richer and the learning stickier. When I teach classes that other people have developed, I find opportunities to introduce some of this stuff if the material isn’t as interactive and interesting as I’d like.

One of my friends, Tricia Broderick, commented to me at a conference “I always know how to find your session… I just listen for the loudest room!” That’s because I frequently have people talking, laughing, and carrying on in simulations. If learning isn’t fun, I just don’t feel like it’s worth the time.

Now extend that into meetings, gatherings, and events, and you can get an idea of the difference this can make.

So yeah, knowing how the brain learns is at least as important as knowing how people learn.

The Subtleties of Language

Agile & Lean | Posted by Doc
Aug 20 2012

Are you an agile coach? A Scrum Master? An Agile Project Manager?

Then I have some questions for you…

  • Do you run meetings or facilitate meetings?
  • Do you drive your project, or do you support and enable your project?
  • Do you assign work or do you track and report progress?
  • Are you in charge or do you serve?

I’ve run into quite a number of folks who have not yet figured out that the language they use both reflects their thinking and communicates their mindset.

I encourage you to consider your role and your purpose, and then consider how your language – both thought and spoken – reflects and affects.

Once again: Busting the Mehrabian Myth

Musings | Posted by Doc
May 05 2011

You’ve probably heard, and repeated, that “93% of all communication is non-verbal”. Of course, this isn’t true. Rather it’s a misuse and misunderstanding of the work of Professor Albert Mehrabian.

Here’s an excellent video that explains it clearly.

Based on what we know today…

Agile & Lean, Musings | Posted by Doc
Mar 03 2011

One of the things I like about Agile is honesty.

In traditional/waterfall, it’s all too likely that we are being dishonest, either through commission or omission: about being on time; about how much is left to do; about when we’ll be done; about the quality of our work. The whole system seems to encourage, or at least support, this kind of dishonesty.

Let me be clear: I am not condemning waterfall wholesale, nor those who practice waterfall. I am examining the cultural biases generated by this approach, and the effects they have on the people.

A phrase I use frequently in Agile:

Based on what we know today, if nothing changes,…

Think about a burn-up chart or burn-down chart. It is immediate. It is based on what we know today, and the forecast/projection only holds true if nothing changes. All the information is clear, it’s right out there for anyone to see, and it’s honest.

When will the project be done? Based on what we know today, if nothing changes…

Because we allow for changes in scope and capacity (velocity), all we know for sure is based on what we’ve accomplished to date, and the current status.

How much is left to do? Based on what we know today, if nothing changes…

As above, the scope might change. If the scope doesn’t change, then we can look at a burn-up chart and tell, with some accuracy, how much is left to do between now and when the progress line touches the scope line.

It goes on and on. The charts are on the wall (including the card wall itself) or in some readily accessible and visible virtual location (like in Mingle).

When I do training, I always make sure that people learn this: “Based on what we know today, if nothing changes…”

It’s honest, based on history, experience, and evidence, and it’s all there for anyone to see.

Body Language

Facilitation, Musings, Presentation | Posted by Doc
Nov 08 2010

Have you ever heard or read this?

  • 7% of meaning is in the words that are spoken.
  • 38% of meaning is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said).
  • 55% of meaning is in facial expression.

Or maybe some variation? Maybe you’ve even repeated it, telling others that 93% of all communication is non-verbal.

First, let’s put this in its proper context. This misinformation is based on research done by Professor Albert Mehrabian in the last twenty years. Here’s an excellent clarification on

Here is the key part:

  • 7% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken.
  • 38% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said).
  • 55% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression.

Note the inclusion of “pertaining to feelings and attitudes” in each of these. Simplified, this says “93% of all communication about feelings and attitudes is non-verbal.”

Also, please note that body language is not included at all!

Here’s a further clarification from Mehrabian himself, from that article on

Mehrabian did not intend the statistic to be used or applied freely to all communications and meaning.

Mehrabian provides this useful explanatory note (from his own website, retrieved 29 May 2009):

“…Inconsistent communications – the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages: My findings on this topic have received considerable attention in the literature and in the popular media. ‘Silent Messages’ [Mehrabian’s key book] contains a detailed discussion of my findings on inconsistent messages of feelings and attitudes (and the relative importance of words vs. nonverbal cues) on pages 75 to 80.

Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking

Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable. Also see references 286 and 305 in Silent Messages – these are the original sources of my findings…”

(Albert Mehrabian, source, retrieved 29 May 2009)

This clarification, that this research was specifically and only about communications about feelings or attitudes, kills a common misconception. It’s not that 93% of all communication is non-verbal, or even that 93% of communications is about feelings and attitudes. Rather, this was a very focused study that addressed communication about feelings and attitudes.

This doesn’t rule out the importance of non-verbal communication, either in voice, presentation, facial expression, or body language. It just eliminates the so-called authoritative reference.

All of that academic-y stuff being out of the way now, we all know that there are also loads of research about body language. And we also know, and research supports, that a significant amount of communication is conducted non-verbally. As such, I think it’s important that each of us who has interaction with others (hmm – that would be pretty much all of us), and particularly those of us for whom interaction is our professional focus, should have some knowledge of body language and facial expression.

Whether you do presentations or training, coaching or leading, understanding what’s being communicated in ways other than in words is a critical skill. When I’m doing training or delivering a talk, one of the constants is that I’m looking at each member of my audience/class/group. At least those I can see: sometimes a group is so large that you can’t really see everyone. As I’m looking at each of them, not only am I making eye contact (a separate topic), but I’m also examining their facial expressions and body language.

  • Are they looking bored? Hostile?
  • Are they looking confused?
  • Are they looking like they have something to say?
  • Are they looking away? Or working on their computer/phone/iPad/whatever?

Each of these is a cue to me that something is going on. Note that in none of these cases is there any verbal communication. So the non-verbal communication, intended or otherwise, is actually 100% of the communication. And I can use that communication, assuming that I recognize it and understand it, to guide my actions and words.

For instance, if I look around and I see a number of people looking sleepy (usually after lunch 😉 ), I may choose to stop what I’m saying and doing, and have the group do an activity.

If I see people looking confused, I may ask if there are questions, or take a few moments to explain a challenging topic in simpler terms.

Regardless of the specific cues, what’s important is knowing that they exist and how to understand them, so that I can use them to inform my choices and be more effective at my communication.

And, lest I leave out an important part, it’s equally important for me to be aware of my own non-verbal communications. But that’s a topic for another day.

…likes me

Coping and Communicating | Posted by Doc
May 01 2010

Michael woke up on Monday, and without rolling over to touch Joan or say good morning, he headed off to the bathroom. This had become his usual practice. If he thought about it at all, he just thought that it was easier – morning greetings had been turning into arguments lately, and it wasn’t the way he preferred to start his day.

As Michael thought back over the past few days and weeks and months and years, he realized that this situation had been developing slowly but steadily. It scared him to think that the tortoise of discontent and frustration was going to win this race.

Michael loved Joan. He had loved her almost from the first time they met, over twenty-five years before. Of course, they were babies then, and didn’t have babies of their own. And they had all the time in the world. And they both knew how things were supposed to work and that they were going to make them work that way.

Times had sure changed! Michael remembered a time when he and Joan would smile and kiss each other good night every night. They had made a pact, early on, to never go to sleep angry. In the morning, they’d start their day with a hug and… Well, that was then. These days, there seemed to be far too many nights that one or the other went to sleep upset, and far too many mornings begun with a grunted greeting. Michael felt close to despair on some days, longing for the relationship they had once had.

Joan lay in bed, listening to Michael moving around, getting ready for work. She could remember, as if it were yesterday, laying in bed and listening to Michael in the early days of their marriage. Then, she remembered, he would stroke her brow or her arm, give her a gentle kiss to say good morning, offer a warm smile, then reluctantly climb out of their bed to start his day. The sounds of him moving around, preparing were reassuring. They made her feel warm and loved. Now they just reminded her of how different things were.

She tried to figure it out – what had happened between them? She knew that Michael still loved her. Well, she was pretty sure that he did. She wasn’t sure that he liked her, and she wasn’t sure that he wanted to be with her. He said he did, of course. What else could he say?

It just seemed like he was always criticizing her and challenging her. He always wanted to do things his way, and seemed to have a knack for making her feel small, stupid, or useless. Why did he do that? Couldn’t he see how he was hurting her.

Joan lay there and struggled with her feelings. She so often felt like crying, at the start of her day. But that would just start a “discussion”, which would end up with her crying and Michael acting frustrated and disgusted. Better to just push it down and deal with it on her own. They didn’t really communicate well any more, anyway, so why bother?

Michael could feel Joan. He knew she was awake, and knew that she was avoiding talking to him. He didn’t know what was bothering her, and was frustrated that she wouldn’t talk to him and wouldn’t let him help. That’s what we do for each other, he thought, isn’t it? Help? But Joan seemed to have shut him out. He didn’t understand, and the whole thing was making him both scared and frustrated. And sometimes angry.

Michael tried not to let it turn into anger, but it just kept building up. He’d never yelled at Joan, nor hit her, nor abused her in any way. He just wanted to figure out what was going on. But nothing he tried worked.

Joan knew that Michael wanted “to help” – what he didn’t realize was that his “helping” was part of the problem. Why couldn’t he just understand that she needed his sympathy and empathy and support? Why did he always have to try to change things, to “fix” things? Joan didn’t need fixing, she just needed his support.

There was that time that she was so upset about the broken chair. For no reason, a chair that was only weeks old had just fallen apart. Joan was indignant! This was shoddy workmanship and she felt ripped off. She was determined to get the store and the manufacturer to set things right. But when she called, she got the run around. She was determined to get justice! When she told Michael about it, he just smiled one of his incredibly frustrating, condescending, “there, there, sweetheart” smiles and told her to call the credit card company and they’d refund the money.

He just didn’t understand! Sure, she wanted the money back, but more than that she wanted justice! This wasn’t right, and it wasn’t just about money. It was about her feeling violated and cheated and wanting that to be set right. She wanted an apology. Michael didn’t get it – he just wanted to “fix it” and make it go away. That made her so angry!

Michael knew he was missing something. He’d try to help when Joan was upset about something, and not only didn’t he seem to be able to help, he seemed to make things worse. Like the time that Joan was all upset about that broken chair. “Just call the credit card company,” he’d said. She looked at him like he was crazy and left the room. That one had taken days to calm down. He still didn’t understand it.

And there was the time that Joan was gone visiting her folks, and he cleaned and reorganized the kitchen cabinets. He was so proud of how logical and clever the arrangement was – pots near the stove, glasses near to hand, cooking utensils arranged near the stove and oven! He thought, all the time he was doing it, how excited and pleased Joan would be when she saw what he’d done.

Then she came home. He was excited, and showed her what he’d done, and explained how logical and efficient it all was. She just stood there with tears running down her cheeks. Why? What was wrong? Why hadn’t she loved it? Didn’t she know that he’d done it for her?

Joan had just about given up. Yes, she still loved Michael. And she thought he still loved her. But they just didn’t seem to be able to communicate. If she tried to tell him that she disagreed with him, he’d get all defensive and then turn it all back on her. And he was always criticizing and questioning and making her feel like she couldn’t do anything right.

Michael had just about given up. Yes, he still loved Joan. And he thought that she still loved him. But they just didn’t seem to be able to communicate. If he tried to tell her that he disagreed with her, she’d attack him, telling him that he wasn’t perfect and that she was doing her best and somehow she always ended up crying. And she was always making him feel like she didn’t need or want his help.

On this particular Monday, they had a date to visit Grannie. Grannie was not actually related to either of them. They’d both known her most of their adult lives, having met Grannie when they were first dating. She seemed ancient then, and that was twenty-five years ago! If they thought about it, they could remember her real name, but they’d been calling her “Grannie” for so long, well, that was who she was.

Both Michael and Joan were looking forward to seeing Grannie. As difficult as things were for them these days, they particularly enjoyed the time they spent with Grannie. She had such a lovely outlook on life – generally everything was simple and Grannie just listened and seemed to enjoy their company. She mostly didn’t put up with any “nonsense”, and had a habit of exposing the simple truths at the heart of things. Sometimes that could be hard for Michael and Joan, since Grannie didn’t allow them to hide things behind “polite lies” to protect their own feelings.

But on this night, both Michael and Joan were feeling both anticipation and fear. Each knew that Grannie would see through their public faces to what was in their hearts, and they were afraid of hearing her say it out loud. And yet, there was something in each of them that hoped…

Grannie is no fool. She’s lived a long life, surrounded herself with people she cares about, and paid attention to those people. As she gets older, her tolerance for “pussyfooting” and “shilly-shallying” goes down. So it’s no surprise to Joan or Michael when Grannie, early in their visit, asks “What’s wrong with you two?”

Naturally, they both leap to denial. Wouldn’t you? This is difficult stuff, and Joan and Michael haven’t been able to deal with it themselves. How can they talk about it with Grannie? But Grannie is not easily put off. With love and care, she draws them out.

You can imagine the discussion and the stories and how each describes the other’s behavior. Lots of sentences begin with…

“He/she makes me feel…”

Grannie lets it go on for a while and finally says “Hold on! Joan and Michael, you keep telling me that the other ‘makes you feel’ some way or other. Now I don’t doubt that Michael wants to ‘fix’ things, and Joan wants ‘support’ and that you two have come to be at odds somehow. That’s making me sad. I’ve known you two for a long time, and there’s no doubt in my mind that you truly love each other. So let me ask you a few questions, okay?”

Michael and Joan, as couples do, look at each other. Each gives a small, shy grin, and they both say “Sure, Grannie, go ahead.” And then they look at each other again and grin nervously. They know that Grannie won’t pull any punches, and are sort of nervous about what’s coming, but they also sort of hope that Grannie can cut through to the heart of the matter.

Grannie starts with a clean shot – “First of all, I don’t think that either of you ‘makes’ the other feel any way. I think each of you feels the way you feel because that’s the way you feel. Sure, the other person’s behavior is what triggers those feelings. But they don’t ‘make’ you feel, now do they?”

This is a tough one, and both Michael and Joan take a minute before answering. There’s a bit of flailing before they both accept that their feelings are their own, and not under someone else’s control.

“So then,” Grannie continues, “if your feelings are your own, and you are responsible for them, why are you finding yourself upset with and about the other so often?”

This isn’t getting any easier. Michael and Joan look at each other sideways. Grannie has, as always, started to cut through the distractions and into the heart. But both Michael and Joan have been struggling with this, and neither has an answer. And they each say so. Grannie watches them. Joan looks at Michael before answering, as though hoping for help. Michael looks at Joan before answering, as though looking for support. The bond that Grannie knew was always there is obviously still there.

“Joan, let me ask you a few questions directly, okay? Michael, you just listen for a minute.”



“Joan, do you love Michael?”


“And do you like Michael?”

A moment for thought, then “Yes, most of the time.”

“And, Joan, do you believe that Michael loves you?”

Without hesitation, Joan says “Yes, I do.” And smiles, almost wistfully.

“And, Joan, do you believe that Michael likes you?”

And now Joan stops, and thinks, and looks under her eyelashes at Michael, and thinks some more. And says “I’m not sure any more. I think so some of the time, but some of the time I think he just doesn’t like me.”

“But you believe that he loves you and you know that you love him?”


“Okay,” Grannie says, “Michael, now it’s your turn. Joan, you sit and listen.”

And Grannie proceeds to ask Michael the same questions. And much to Joan’s surprise, the answers are almost identical!

Since Joan and Michael are paying attention, they grin a bit and look at each other, maybe even a bit quizzically.

Grannie continues. “Now here’s my dilemma. You both tell me that you love the other. You also both tell me that you believe the other loves you. And you both tell me that you like the other most of the time, but that you aren’t sure that the other likes you. And there’s the dilemma.”

Grannie pauses, smiling beatifically at them, one eyebrow arched as she says “What I don’t understand is this: if you both feel and believe as you say you do, why doesn’t the belief that the other loves you deeply outweigh anything and everything else?”

Joan and Michael get a thoughtful look in their eyes. Joan looks at Michael and asks “You like me?” Michael, with a nervous grin says “Most of the time.” Joan smiles and says “Me, too!”

Michael and Joan are in love. Everyone that knows them has always known this. But their family and friends saw their difficulties. Being cautious of interfering in someone else’s relationship, and being careful of their own relationships with Michael and Joan, most of their family and friends had been treading carefully. And now?

Now everyone notices that Joan and Michael are acting like they’re in love, again. And when someone asks Joan what’s going on, Joan just says “He likes me!”

And when someone asks Michael what’s going on, he says “She likes me!”

And they smile at each other.

I wrote this around 2002 or 2003. I hadn’t read it for a long time, and just reread it today. I’m reminded that these lessons apply to far more than the marital relationship. It’s valuable to remember that our feelings are our own.


Coping and Communicating, Musings | Posted by Doc
Sep 27 2009

I went to see the new version of the movie “Fame” this afternoon with my wife and daughters.

I will say that I loved the movie, and plan to see it again.

It raised some interesting feelings and thoughts for me, which tie into a talk I gave at St. Edwards University Career Symposium on Friday.

I should mention that when I was growing up in New York, I applied to and auditioned for the High School of the Performing Arts, on which the movies have been based.  I didn’t make it.  I didn’t have the talent or skill necessary. Watching the movie led me to wonder what would happened had I gotten in.

There are some great messages in the movie. Jennie’s monologue about success toward the end is a wonderful piece of writing.

What it brought up for me was that many of the things that helped to determine the direction of my life and career have been pretty random.

I moved to San Francisco after college, because that’s where my two best friends settled after driving across the country.  I met my wife, started graduate school, got a crummy job, fell into the computer industry, moved to Silicon Valley, had children, started my martial arts studies, had a heart attack, changed my view of life and the world… and all because my friends ended up in San Francisco.

Professionally, I left that first job at Control Data and went to my first startup in Silicon Valley.  That led me to other startups, my own company, my move to Austin, and ultimately my job at ThoughtWorks.  None of these things could have happened without the others preceding them, and yet it all seems so random.

So here’s the thought for my readers: are there ANY decisions you’ve made in your life that have NOT helped to determine the path of your life? Whether big ones like which school you attend or who you date or marry, or little ones like whether to go to the movies this afternoon.

After all, going to the movies today may shift my perspective on something else, which will influence a decision I’ll make, which will lead me…  well, you get the idea.

Every interaction I have with someone else has the potential to change their life or mine or both. While this is an awful responsibility, it’s also an awesome opportunity.  It shouldn’t freeze me. It SHOULD lead me to think about the things I say and do and how I say and do them.

I had an interesting small example of this when I was at Agile2009.  Walking to dinner with a group of people, most of whom I’d never met either physically or vitrually, I began introducing myself.  There were these two fellows from Finland.  As I introduced myself to the second, he said “Doc?  Doc LIST?”

Who knows what impact things I’ve said have had on him, or could have on him.  The fact that he knew who I am was pretty stunning. Thank goodness he seemed happy to meet me. 🙂

Remember my name.

I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna learn how to fly

I feel it coming together
People will see me and cry


Coping and Communicating, Facilitation | Posted by Doc
Aug 20 2009

I’m reading this book, and one character says to another “Everything has consequences.”

I swear I heard a bell go off in my head!

I’ve always said “Everything counts.”  And also “if I’m present, whether I’m active or passive, I have an effect on what happens.”

And then this fictitious characters says “Everything has consequences.” and it all comes together for me.

Everything you do, or don’t do, has consequences.

“Right, Doc. Like if I give my wife a gift, it has consequences?”

Yup. And sometimes unexpected ones. Maybe the gift is too expensive, or not expensive enough.  Maybe you thought she’d love it, but she sees it in a way you’d never think of.  Or maybe she just loves it, and feels warmer towards you for a while.

“Okay. How about if I do nothing?”

There’s no such thing as “nothing.” Being inactive is not nothing. Being silent or withdrawn is most definitely not “nothing.”

As always, since It’s All About Me, whatever you do or don’t do, I will interpret according to my context, my view of the world at that moment. And that’s my reality.

So “nothing” might be angry or hostile or sad or frustrated or… And, as they tell us in Crucial Conversations, I will then proceed to tell myself a story about how you feel, what it means, and how it affects me.  All as a result of you saying and doing… nothing.

I’m not suggesting that you either stop doing anything, or that you do something all the time.

I’m saying that it pays to be aware that Everything has consequences.

I’m sorry

Musings | Posted by Doc
Aug 02 2009

I’m all in favor of saying “I’m sorry.” Not necessarily as an admission of fault or wrongdoing, of course. But because sometimes it’s the right thing to say.

“I had a really rotten day.” “I’m sorry.”

And then there are times that it’s just not the appropriate thing to say.

Mary and Bill were riding down in the elevator, on their way out to the store. They were chatting as usual, talking about this and that.

The elevator reached the ground floor. When the door opened, there was another couple standing right in front of the door, effectively blocking the way.

As Bill and Mary started to exit the elevator, Mary turned sideways to edge out, and said “I’m sorry.”

Bill’s inclination had been to say “excuse me” until Mary spoke up, and then he was stumped into silence.

What did Mary have to be sorry about? There was no fault, and nothing to be sympathetic to. Rather, the people standing in front of the elevator should have said “I’m sorry” or at least “excuse me” and moved aside.

So why would Mary say “I’m sorry”?

My thought is that Mary has self-image issues. She behaves as though she somehow believes that other people are worth more than she is or more important than she is. I could be wrong, but I’ve seen this kind of behavior enough times to have a clue.

While I believe strongly in treating people with respect, I don’t believe in behaving with automatic subservience or submission.

You’ve gotta earn those, and you’d better have a BIG hammer!

IAAM: Sympathizing, Empathizing, Identifying

Coping and Communicating, Musings | Posted by Doc
Jul 02 2009

[This is fiction. Any resemblance to individuals living or otherwise is purely coincidental.  Really.]

Joan’s phone starting ringing insistently. Joan thought for a moment, since she was watching her favorite reality TV show, and that was her time to just disconnect. In spite of her preferences, Joan decided to answer the phone.

“Joan?” She heard her friend Nancy’s voice, and her heart skipped a beat. Nancy was sobbing. “Nancy? What’s wrong honey?”

“They fired me, Joan! They fired me!”

“Joanie…” sobbing “…they said that I just wasn’t living up to their expectations.”

“Oh, Nancy…”

Now let’s talk about Joan’s possible reactions…

Each of us has a different reaction, and each of us offers a different response based on that reaction*. For the moment, I want to talk about three types of reaction and response: sympathy, empathy, and identification.

Reaction: Sympathy

Response: “Oh, Nancy… that’s terrible. You must feel miserable.  I can only imagine how that feels. Would you like to come over and talk?”

Reaction: Empathy

Response: “Oh, Nancy… I feel terrible. I can’t believe it! I’ll come over and let’s talk about what we can do.” Joan cries.

Reaction: Identification

Response: “Oh, Nancy. Those bastards! After all you’ve done for them, and how hard you’ve worked. You gave your all to that company, and this is how they treat you? I’m devastated.”

Nancy cries.

Joan cries.

Up to this point, sympathy, empathy, and identification sound a lot alike. In all three versions, Joan has an emotional reaction that leads to a behavior – her response. In each case, her response is subtly different. Note that in the following discussion, I am not making a judgment about better versus worse, or good versus bad… I’m working on achieving understanding and recognizing that each type of reaction and response deserves and requires a different response from me.

In being sympathetic, Joan’s response is separate. Joan is clear that what is happening to Nancy is about Nancy, not about Joan. While Joan may feel sad or angry, it is on behalf of her friend. From Nancy’s perspective, there is a little bit of distance between them. Joan’s feelings are moderate.

In being empathetic, Joan’s response is collective. Joan feels what she believes Joan feels, including the pain, indignation, and so forth. For Joan, what is happening is also happening to her, emotionally. From Nancy’s perspective, it’s like a resonation, which may increase the level of her feelings. To a certain extent, Joan’s reaction becomes an extension of Nancy’s reaction. Joan’s feelings are intense, although she recognizes that they are about Nancy.

In identifying with Nancy, Joan takes on Nancy’s feelings and reactions. Joan’s response is intense and personal, as though she were the one who had been fired. Nancy may be taken aback by the intensity of Joan’s reaction, as Joan takes on some of Nancy’s emotional response. Joan behaves as if she were the one who had been fired, and will react to others as if she were the victim as much as Nancy.

To see how this works, let’s add Joan’s husband Mark to the story…

“Joan? What’s going on?”


“It’s Nancy. She got fired today. I feel so bad for her. She’s so upset.”

“That sucks. What’s she going to do?”

“I don’t know yet. I may have to spend some time with her.  I hope that’s okay with you.”


“It’s Nancy. She got fired today. I’ve got to go over there to be with her right now!” Sobbing

“That sucks. What’s she going to do?”

“I don’t know yet, but I just know how horrible she feels and that I have to go be with her. It’s so painful! Doesn’t this upset you?”


“It’s Nancy. She got fired today. I’ve got to go over there to be with her right now!” Sobbing

“That sucks. What’s she going to do?”

“They treated her like dirt! How can you be so calm?  Don’t you care? They were unfair and cruel. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’re going to do something to show them!”

Note that Joan’s response to Mark escalates from Sympathy to Empathy to Identification. In the latter, Joan feels that what has happened to Nancy has happened to her, and thus she expects the same kind of reaction from Mark that she’d expect if she had been fired.

This post is long enough.  Now I’m going to go off and think about the differences in responses to each of the three.


  • an inclination to support or be loyal to or to agree with an opinion; “his sympathies were always with the underdog”; “I knew I could count on his …
  • sharing the feelings of others (especially feelings of sorrow or anguish)
  • a relation of affinity or harmony between people; whatever affects one correspondingly affects the other; “the two of them were in close sympathy”



  • the attribution to yourself (consciously or unconsciously) of the characteristics of another person (or group of persons)
  • a process by which one ascribes to oneself the qualities or characteristics of another person.
  • A person’s association with or assumption of the qualities, characteristics, or views of another person or group.

*Reaction vs. Response

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m defining “reaction” as the emotional or physical effect that occurs without thinking, and “response” as the chosen action or thought that occurs after the reaction. That is, if I put my hand in a fire, pulling my hand out is a reaction – I don’t think about it – while swearing about it is a response.

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