Grace started her career as a communication expert at the age of two, intervening between arguing family members by turning their faces toward each other. In the decades since, she’s studied everything from neuroscience to meditation (which she frequently mis-spells “mediation,” another area of study), and from linguistics to the techniques used by FBI hostage negotiators. She loves nothing more than helping people understand communication and empathy – the two most essential skills for leadership of self, of a team, or within a family. www.gracejudson.com
1. As a communication expert, what are some of the ways you try to change the “typical” conversation?
We can never truly understand anyone else’s experience; we always filter things through our own perspective, especially our concepts of how we think the world “should” be and, of course, what we want in any given moment.
By teaching a bit of the basic neuroscience of decision-making and emotional reactivity, I help people understand that what might seem like “fluffy” concepts around empathy and compassion are actually solidly grounded in scientific fact. This makes it easier for them to take the next step: making their best attempt to get out of their own head – out from behind their own perspectives and immediate desires – and at least try to understand why the other person might be acting, thinking, and speaking the way they are.
This can truly be transformative, whether in the midst of a workplace conflict or simply over the family dinner table.
2. Your work focuses on “tactical empathy” and finding a realistic connection behind the science of why we do what we do. How does your approach differ from others in your industry?
I’ll preface my answer by saying that there’s a lot of great information and many excellent ideas “out there” in the communication, negotiation, conflict, and challenging conversation space.
Having said that, I believe that many of the communication models being taught and written about can devolve into unhelpfulness in two ways.
First, they can become very scripted. I’ve studied several of these models myself, and I’ve talked with clients and colleagues who have also studied them, and there’s often a challenging disconnect between what someone learns by reading or attending a workshop, and what actually happens when they try to put the learning into practice. This tends to lead to repeating the model’s example scripts word-for-word, and that in turn leads to a phony tone – and to a breakdown in the process when the other person doesn’t follow the script!
Second, I’ve seen situations where almost all the models can become disturbingly manipulative and almost abusive.
Of course, anyone who wants to be manipulative can use any tool or process to improve their manipulative abilities. I’d be the last to claim that what I teach can’t be used in less-than-ideal ways.
However, I work extensively to teach ways of achieving empathy – to help the other person feel felt, not just heard or understood. And I work with tools instead of scripts, and that’s not merely a semantic difference. The practices I teach are highly interactive; they essentially require my client or student to engage with the other person’s words and perceived emotions.
This avoids the scripted feeling, and because it’s about sincerity and empathy, my expectation is that it’s less likely to be mis-applied or misused.
Finally, most people begin with the premise that communication, conflict management, negotiation, and so on, are what we typically call “soft skills.”
But it all starts in the brain, and that means there’s hard neuroscience at play. When we look at what happens in the brain when people are making choices and decisions, or what’s going on neurologically when they’re upset and apparently irrational, we gain a significant advantage in understanding how to manage those states – for ourselves and with others.
3. On your website you state, “I believe that empathetic communication can change the world.” What are some ways you think the world would benefit from this type of communication? Do you believe that the majority in your industry would agree?
I’m reminded of the (very long) opening line of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
It’s remarkable how applicable that is to today’s reality.
With the extraordinary volatility and growing polarity we see everywhere around us, the need for empathy and understanding has never been greater.
As you say yourself, Ozan – and this is a quote I often use in my work – “If you disagree with someone, it’s not because you’re right and they’re wrong. It’s because they believe something that you don’t believe. They have a different perspective that you’re missing.”
My work is about helping people understand this, understand how to shift perspectives, and understand that shifting perspectives – understanding the other person – doesn’t mean they suddenly agree with the other person. It does mean they now have crucial information that they can use to have a constructive, productive conversation instead of a battle. How could the world not benefit from this?
And yes, I do think others in my industry would agree. At least, I hope they would!
4. What changes to society do you hope to bring by teaching empathetic communication?
Everything we do creates ripples – ripples that extend further than we will ever know. When I teach one person how to be more empathetic, how to understand what’s going on when someone is emotionally reactive – whether it’s in the office or at home – and how to manage that emotionality in a way that’s more productive and moves the situation forward instead of keeping it stuck (or, worse, going backward into greater conflict) … when I teach one person, what they learn and how they change impacts everyone they encounter. And so on and so forth.
The ripples of our actions spread. Change happens gradually, over time, incrementally. We all have the opportunity to be a positive or negative force in society. What we cannot ever be is a neutral force; it just doesn’t work that way.
My hope is that through what I teach, as well as how consistently I walk my own talk (imperfectly, but I try!), I’m creating ripples that move us toward a more caring, humane, and, yes, empathetic world.