Not worth the risk: Interaction without empathy
My last substantive conversation with my grandmother was at 14, about Israel and Palestine. She died when I was 27. I missed 13 years with her because of a comment she made (and the grudge I held).
A bit of background: Grandma Jan was a deep seeker of knowledge and spiritual wisdom. She got a PhD late in life, after raising six children and serving as an “air force wife,” around the world. She received her Ph.D. on the same day I was born. Next, she got a job as a professor/lecturer at University of Maryland. For the rest of her life, in addition to playing a very active role in her kids’ and grandkids’ lives, she traveled the world seeking knowledge and experiences in other cultures and religious traditions. Grandma lived independently (while also caring for her adult disabled son) until her death in 2007.
During that conversation with me at the ripe and wisened age of 14, Grandma was explaining how Palestine had a right to its holy land and explained that Israel was in the wrong. Her opinion seemed off. I challenged some of her premises, engaging in debate. I probably came across as ignorant and argumentative. But, I really wanted to understand and I truly believed she hadn’t backed up her apparent position. I pointed out a couple logical flaws in her reasoning, including some hypocrisy. Instead of explaining (or telling me she was not willing to engage just then), she said something along the lines of “You are young, so you can't possibly understand.” I was dismissed because she couldn’t or wouldn’t argue her point.
I was shocked, sad, and later became angry. Grandma had always engaged in debate. But instead of debate this time, she chose a mild ad hominem attack. I lost respect for her that day.
I never truly connected with her again. I didn’t realize it or do it on purpose. But just like that, her words had ended our relationship. She may have just been tired, or confused, or unsure of herself. But she chose to put me down in that moment of weakness, whatever the cause.* I realize now, she lacked empathy for me in that moment.
Entrenched and strongly held opinions without openness to criticism and fresh air can end relationships and start wars (or inflame long-standing conflicts, as is the case with Hamas and Israel today).
Lack of empathy when interacting with someone who has strongly held opinions can cause outsized damage to relationships. And, empathy is always possible regardless of the opinions held.
Rarely in MedTech do we have day to day interactions with this depth of potential impact. But leaders do have the potential to inspire or inflame with a quick response, and the result of the communications can change the course of health tech products.
I know of a company who once had a great relationship with FDA. After a change in the company’s regulatory leadership, interactions with FDA devolved. The new leader's approach was secretive and combative instead of collaborative and empathetic. And the company now has significant challenges with FDA, not knowing exactly why.
Be empathetic in your interactions with regulators (and subordinates, and competitors, and customers, and…you get the picture). It’ll lead to better business outcomes AND personal happiness.
~Shannon, the Optimistic Optimizer**
* And I, sadly, did not forgive her until the day she died. I hadn’t realized I could forgive without having first an apology from her. It was a poignent lesson.
** Despite or because of the suffering in the world - I always believe we can do better.