It was because of my new CEO that I left my last job

It’s true. My last CEO did a great job of making me sure I wanted to leave.


He officially joined the company in January of 2008, but I personally never saw him being active until the middle of February. In those first 6 weeks, he went around the rest of the world on a very expensive road-trip, visiting every branch of the company, talking with as many people as he could to find out who they were, what they wanted, how they operated and what was important to them.

When he finally arrived in Belgium, he did the same thing with most of our staff, including me. His approach, it seems, was always the same: He would ask a few questions, listen a lot and then say what he had to say. When he spoke, everything made sense. With me, it even made me decide to leave.


What he did was the finest form of active empathy and it allowed him to better understand his people and better communicate with them. When listening to me, he got an idea of who I was, what I was trying to achieve, my career aspirations, turn-ons and turn-offs. Listening attentively, he picked up on what really got me buzzing. And he quickly understood that what he wanted to achieve was not in-line with what I wanted to achieve. In no uncertain terms and in a way that made perfect sense to me, he outlined his strategy and what would be the place for my function. I understood I wouldn’t fit in and together we looked for ways to help me move on. Perfect!

Communicating in this way is an art and if it is done well, it is not a bad thing when other people who understand you decide to get off the train. It is a much better result that staying on the wrong train thanks to manipulative or bad communication.


If you want to align with other people, you need to do the same as my last CEO:

  • Listen first. Ask lots of questions and drill down for more information.
  • Try to get a sense of the situation, values and needs of the other person.
  • Speak to people on their terms, using words they understand and align to their needs wherever possible.
  • Don’t bullshit. Get to the point and speak clearly.
  • Answer the only 3 questions that count.


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Active Empathy

We all know what active listening means, right? ..and of course, everyone knows what empathy is!

Well today I have coined this term: “Active Empathy”

Read on…


Empathy does not mean “seeing things from your point of view” …

When I started up in Sitel some years ago, the training guys told me that “empathy” was the key to call-centre client handling. They told me that you have “to see things from the point of view of other people”. But its not that easy!

Suppose I am looking at the world through my yellow glasses and you are looking at the world through your red glasses… If I come over to your point of view and look at the world, I will see it in orange! This is no good to anyone !

What we need first is to put our own point of view “on hold”. This “on hold” will allow me to get a better perspective of how you see things.


…but putting my opinion on hold is not enough to understand your point of view

Suppose then that I drop my own yellow opinions and come to have a look at things from where you are standing. What will I see? Who knows?!? …but I am still not wearing your red glasses, so it won’t be a world of red. What I need is to first look AT YOUR GLASSES and try to get a feeling for …. hear it comes … the key ….. your SITUATION, VALUES and NEEDS.

(If I get THAT, they I may actually later be able to look at the world THROUGH YOUR RED GLASSES. Or, as Harper Lee put it in “To Kill a Mocking Bird” ….”climb into their skin and walk around in it”)


Looking at other people’s Situation, Values and Needs requires real listening

In my training courses, I help participants discover the skill of real listening. To really listen, you need to do 3 things:

  1. Drop your ego and stop making assumptions
  2. Ask open questions
  3. Drill down to understand structural terms used by the other person

…we all know this, but its amazing how much we DON’T do it.


If you have actively listened and been truly empathic, its time for “active empathy”

It is not enough to understand other people. You need to SHOW you have understood them.

At Sitel, they told me that you should say things like “Ah-ha, I understand” and people will feel like you understand them. This point has been proven to be rubbish 100 times with my wife. No matter how much I say “I understand”, she still doesn’t believe me! (The fact it, I probably don’t understand her as I tend not to drop my ego much, but that’s another question…).

What is active empathy? Its SHOWING you have understood the situation, values and needs of another person. Showing WHAT you have understood….


Here are 8 key competences for active empathy

  1. Time, patience and a truly caring attitude
  2. Active listening (as described above) 
  3. Attention to detail (body language, reactions, phrasing, expressions etc)
  4. Don’t say you HAVE understood. Say WHAT you understood.
  5. Repeating and rephrasing structurally important words and ideas expressed by the other
  6. Usage of words and terms employed by the OTHER person when talking with them
  7. Matching the preferred communication style of the other person (with for example speech patterns, body language, level of detail)
  8. Collaboration: Work together for the greater good


In a nutshell, active empathy is:

  • Drop your ego –> Active listening –> Look at the glasses of the other person
  • Understand –> Show them you have understood


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