Rob Volpe 00:04
Empathy enables the skills that let us be the people that we are or want to be. And it enables communication, persuasion, collaboration, problem solving ideation, forgiveness, compassion trust.
Adam Baruh 00:31
Welcome to The Change where we share stories and inspiration from servant leaders who work to destigmatize mental health issues, and increase empathy in the workplace. I’m your host, Adam Baruh. We all know and can relate to the five senses smelling, touching, tasting, seeing and hearing. But in the words of our guest today, empathy is like one of our senses, intuitive and present standing by whenever we need to tap into it. In my own experience, I’ve found this to be very true as an empath, I have a heightened ability to feel the emotions of others. And so it’s very much a core sensation in my body. And the more I’ve leaned into empathy, the greater my sense of self awareness. As a business leader and CEO, I found that my qualities as an empath had been vital to the success of my business. This has been true for how I’ve been able to relate to my team, and also how I’ve been able to relate to my customers. In working with E commerce businesses, it’s pretty important for me to be able to truly understand the motivations driving my customer, and also an understanding how users will interact with the web pages that we built, here to talk with us about empathy. And how it shows up in our personal and professional lives is Robert Volpe, CEO of Ignite 360. Hey, Rob, welcome to The Change.
Rob Volpe 01:47
Hey, Adam, thank you so much for having me.
Adam Baruh 01:50
I’m really excited about this conversation, just um, you know, we met earlier and, you know, had a lot of synergy and alignment around the topic of empathy. And let’s start with, you know, your story, just having read your book, you talk about, you know, as a young child growing up in New York City, and the fond memory that you do have of that with your grandmother, and so on and so forth. But then you moved to a small town in Indiana, and then a much even smaller town. And so, you know, I guess go back there for us, if you will, and describe how these experiences shaped and informed the work that you do today.
Rob Volpe 02:30
Sure. Yeah, it’s kind of my Peter Parker spider bite origin story, we’d moved into the smaller small town, it’s like 13,000 people in Indiana, and total outsiders. And within, I don’t know, five or six weeks into fifth grade, one of the kids in the class decided that he should start the rumor that I was gay. And that, you know, 19 ad Indians alternate Indiana. So, you know, try to think, go into the Wayback Machine and see what life was like then, and I didn’t even know what gay was let alone acting on it. I mean, kids today, I think, have a much greater comfort and kind of their own identity and comfortable in saying that, but regardless, that rumors spread like wildfire, and that made my life a living hell for quite a few years. And empathy. What it triggered out of me was the ability to start to use empathy to survive, and to navigate the halls of the school. And as I moved into junior high, and then even high school, I found that if I was able to understand the kids, and like, be friends with them, or be friendly, and listen to their stories, basically see them and hear them, then they’d be much, much less likely to jump on the bandwagon when the next rumor would get started, or when, you know, kid wanted to beat me up. And so if there were fewer people egging on the situation, the impact of it would be a lot less. Which, you know, I gotta say, like to be having, like, as I reflected back on it now, that’s a lot of calculations for a preteen and a teenager to be constantly going through and thinking about how to navigate and survive. That’s, that’s what was going on in my mind, at the time, and so empathy became this, you know, got activated, I think, as a superpower. And then I continued to just be empathetic, you know, it’s part of who I am. And I do actually love hearing people’s stories and talking to people. I also write about during that same time, I was a newspaper boy for the Indianapolis Star, and I loved going and collecting the money that was due and I get like, I’d go down rabbit holes with people go into their home and hang out for like an hour and hear their stories. And we talk about, you know, traditions and rituals and current events and whatever was going on and I was maybe, you know, 1314 15 at the time. I absolutely loved it. It was fascinating.
Adam Baruh 05:15
Yeah, I remember reading in your book how like, what should have been like a one hour paper route was like a seven hour paper out for years.
Rob Volpe 05:23
The ordeal I mean, you know, it’d be like dark, and I’d finally be coming home with with the money. And sometimes I’d only have hit three or four houses and then need to go back out the next day to finish off the rest of the collection. Because it? Yeah, start talking to people.
Adam Baruh 05:41
Yeah. Now was that like a conscious? Like, did you consciously say, Hey, this is this is the way I can get by like, and being able to, like, actually use the word empathy in there? Or was it more just kind of like, just a natural development for you and just, you know, in terms of getting older, and being able to relate to other people, like,
Rob Volpe 06:04
I think it was something that I inherently possessed, and then had to rely on it more as given the situation. And trying to figure you know, I think you start when, as it comes to my classmates, you start to realize, like, the kids that, like me are nice to me. They’re not jumping in on it, or I’m not hearing rumors from them. So how do I get more people to like me? Or how do I, you know, make that work. And ultimately, I forget how old I was, it might have been in high school, I read Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. And it’s all about empathy. Yeah, you know, you got to listen to people, and people like to talk about themselves. And I found that that was actually very true. And then when it came to the customers on the newspaper route, that was just the sheer curiosity and kind of interest in, you know, other people’s lives. And, you know, you’re you’re getting to step into strangers homes and see how other people live. I think that’s super cool. Really fascinating.
Adam Baruh 07:11
Yeah, in your book, you you share a number of different stories, you know, in your role as a moderator, you know, with your, your marketing, marketing background, right, and working with your customers going into people’s homes, we’re definitely going to get into a couple of those stories. I’m curious, you know, would you? Do you think you would describe yourself as were you sensitive as a child or like, and, you know, I guess on top of that, like, do you see a relationship between, you know, people that are highly sensitive and heightened sense of empathy?
Rob Volpe 07:43
Yeah, absolutely. And so yes, I would say that I was sensitive, as a child and even as an adult. And there are people. So I guess there’s, you know, our current situation where we have a lot of people that don’t have that much empathy. But then we’ve got people on the other end of the spectrum, that are highly sensitive, HSP, highly sensitive person, that and they’re also known as empaths, where they really can feel and take on everything, and you have to learn how to control that it’s is Yeah. But you have to learn how to manage what you’re taking in, and then how it’s affecting you. And there’s a lot of work that individuals need to do to make sure that they’re not just kind of carrying everything. When I first started moderating, which was back 15 or so years ago, I didn’t realize it but at the time, I was taking on a little bit of everybody’s sort of stories, and I did a breath healing session, which involved a lot of different controlled breathing exercises to help move energy through your body and release energy. And at one point, I just really had this experience where I just felt all of these stories kind of come flying out of my body, basically, like I was letting go of things that I was carrying of other people. And I didn’t even realize that I was carrying all of them, but I needed to process it needed to pass it on. So yeah, there there are people with that beautiful gift of being truly empaths and really connecting emotionally. And then people that are just associated with their emotions are disconnected with their emotions. And really for them, what I try to do and a lot of the focus of the book is about having cognitive empathy, just being able to see the point of view of somebody else, because it is harder for people to get into that emotional space. And I believe what we need in our day to day life is a lot just more cognitive empathy and understand where somebody’s coming from that they might be having a bad day.
Adam Baruh 09:58
Yeah, well, that’s it’s a good opportunity now to, to go there because yeah, you speak about cognitive empathy versus affective or emotional empathy. So if you want to just elaborate on that a little bit further on that, I think, you know, for me, the cognitive seems to be more like something that can be taught. And the emotional, it’s kind of more of a built in, but I’m curious your perspective and how you kind of differentiated the two.
Rob Volpe 10:25
Yeah, so the scientists have found that we’re born with the ability to have empathy, much in the way that like a baby is born with the muscles that will enable it to walk. However, you need to have the opportunities to strengthen those muscles up just like with a baby, where they you know, progress to crawl and then stand and maybe scoot. And then finally, it steps and then run. Empathy is very similar to that it’s something that we’re born with, but we need to have opportunities to develop and strengthen the muscle, so that we can actually use it. And another thing about that is that there are two different types of empathy. And some neuroscientists have found that different parts of our brain light up when we’re using different empathetic tools. So if we have motional, empathy, that were effective empathy, that’s the feeling the feeling of somebody else. And you’re feeling that with them. But then cognitive empathy is being able to see the perspective of somebody else and understanding their point of view, you’re not going to be able to emotionally relate to everybody. And I don’t think it’s fair to expect us to, but you should be able to see the point of view of somebody else to listen and try to understand where they’re coming from.
Adam Baruh 11:49
Yeah, definitely. And then, you know, where does, where does sympathy come into play? Because it’s a bit different. And I, you know, to quote you, you describe this, I think, like a with four. So if you want to just kind of describe how sympathy is, plays.
Rob Volpe 12:05
And it’s another thing that people get some sympathy and empathy confused. So sympathy is feeling for somebody empathy is seeing with it, you know, and that’s the key is it’s that equality, it’s an eye to eye at the same level. You have a feeling with somebody where sympathy and sympathy is needed, it’s not to put sympathy down. But sympathy can create power dynamics that can create, oh, I’m, I’m having pity for you, somebody leads into pity. Empathy will not empathy leads into compassion amongst many other things. So we need to have sympathy, and we need to receive sympathy, that’s important when we’ve experienced a loss or other situation. But there’s a difference in the dynamic between the two. So empathy is what we should be using all the time, every day.
Adam Baruh 13:00
Yes. So let’s talk a little bit about ignite 360. And I’d love to, you know, dive into some of the stories that you shared and just kind of illustrating, you know, getting towards the, what you describe the five steps to empathy, and, you know, kind of, you know, going from these stories to each one of the five steps, if you will, so, let’s start with, um, you know, step number one, which is the dismantling of judgment, right. Yes. Self awareness, mindfulness, self investigation, you just, you shared a story about this teenage boy named Baleia, I believe you had traveled to Atlanta, it was like a really hot day, you had an overnighter in the airport. So you were not in your prime prime situation and, you know, arriving in Atlanta. And then upon arrival, you were directed to have, you know, through Bailey’s mother to have the interview outside, you know, not within a nice air conditioned environment. So, you know, tell us about how you are, I guess why you included the story when it came to step one dismantle judgment.
Rob Volpe 14:08
Yeah. So, that story is really about actually a lot of the stories in there in the book, I’m very honest about times that I failed at having empathy. And because I let one of these steps, you know, it would become a barrier for me. So with balay, you know, that 17 years old, we were doing a project on chewing gum. We were in Atlanta, super hot and humid because it was late June, so yuck. And throughout, and there’s a there’s a theme, and kind of a running commentary for me about how much I hate. Humid, hot summer weather. And there’s a reason why I live in California, San Francisco, notably, notably San Francisco like no thank you to 95 and muggy but That’s what it was that day. And the mom sent us out to be on the Community Center at their apartment complex. And it was concrete, patio tables and chair, molded concrete thing. Yeah, and we were wilting it was like four o’clock in the afternoon, and we were just wilting. It’s like the peak of the weather, you could see thunderstorms brewing. And we finally and that was bad enough. And then, you know, as a result of the heat and how we were all feeling Bailey was mumbling through the interview, like so I can barely hear him. And you know, as many a teenager mind, you’re like, speak up, you know, having trouble hearing you. We finally noticed his parents went off to go get dinner. And so they laughed. And we thought, Ah, this is our we there was a client who was intrigued getting the house as well. And we saw that as an opportunity. And Bailey had told us about some videos, dance videos he had done that he put on YouTube, this is way before Tiktok was like 2007 2008. So YouTube was a thing. And so he put these videos up on YouTube. And we were like, oh, because we didn’t have smartphones back then it was like, Oh, why don’t you take us inside? And you can show us the videos on your computer, and we can see your room and where you hang out and all the things. Sure. And he was like, okay, yeah, sure. The parents were gone. And we stepped into what I can only describe as a hoarder house. And this is before hoarders was a TV show didn’t understand what that was. Living room had Coca Cola memorabilia, everywhere, there was a narrow path. To get through the room, it felt like every surface area was covered. And then we got into what was the dining room. And there were no chairs. But there was a lot of stuff, random stuff piled on top of the dining table. And then there was a desk area where his computer was, and so we were all standing there. But at the same time, I mean, there was this smell of cat and dog urine, and and then also a cake that the mom had baked, and was at, and you could see from the dining room into the kitchen, and there was the yellow cake in a pan on top of the stove cooling. And you’re like, oh my god, like, what is this like, and I literally whispered to one of the clients like touch nothing. It was, but at the same time, we were being judgmental about Bailey’s sort of surroundings. And he was getting in the way of us hearing what you know, he just wanted to show us his dance videos. And he was really proud of what he had done. But we were having trouble with judgment was getting in our way of even seeing him as a person at that point. Because we were so kind of horrified by what we were standing on and in and around. Yeah. You know, and then we saw the cockroaches. And the story just kind of continues from there. But yeah, judgment was totally getting in our way. And that’s when, you know, when as we left the home, and we were in the car debriefing, we really you know, you’re just like you, oh, my God. But you had to work to get beyond your judgment. In order to go well, let’s go back to Bailey and like, what did we hear from him? What were the stories that he actually had to share about chewing gum? Which is why we were there in the first place? And what were those insights? But you know, it was an extreme situation where empathy eluded us. And we let that get the better of us.
Adam Baruh 18:48
Yeah, I mean, you know, in writing about the five steps to empathy, you did describe how this first step dismantling judgment, it’s the hardest, it’s the hardest to get over. Because, you know, we, we have belief systems, you know, it’s I think there’s a tendency to want to judge, right, but, you know, you’ve described how really, it’s, it is the core fundamental step in reaching a state of empathy, which is, you have to learn how to have the self awareness that you are judging, and to, you know, avoid being judgmental.
Rob Volpe 19:24
Yep, exactly. It’s having that self awareness that it’s happening. And it is. First, I should say, there’s a difference between making a judgment, do I go down that dark alley or make a decision, and being judgmental, you need to make judgments, but being judgmental is the thing that gets in your way, right? That’s the thing to always be mindful of. And in that case, we were being judgmental, and it’s just like catching yourself in the moment like you’re about to say something. Oh, wait, whoa, do I need to? I really need to say that. Yeah. Where’s that coming from? How do I rephrase this? How do we think about it differently? And when they can do that, it really can unlock some really great insights and moments, but you’ve got to be able to get over your your judgment.
Adam Baruh 20:09
Yeah, let’s let’s go into the story of Karen and the raw milk too, because that I think, even illustrates further just where, you know, judging kind of can can be that barrier and kind of how you work through it to reach, you know, this higher self more self aware state.
Rob Volpe 20:29
Yeah. So, we were on a project of fielding and in Michigan, talking to consumers that use dry packaged dinners. So think, you know, Hamburger Helper think Kraft macaroni and cheese, things like that. And Karen was this mom, she had six kids at home. And she had that mentioned, you know, as a retirement family or dinner rituals. And she had some really amazing shortcuts and ways she was using some of these dried dinners as a base to make something completely different or bigger for her family. Yeah. And there were really good insights that were coming out of the conversation. And then she mentioned that they also drink raw, unpasteurized milk. You know, and that’s something that and this is, Gosh, 11 years or so ago, 1012 years ago. So it’s something that was available to do in Michigan. I hadn’t really heard of it before. But she starts to explain it and like, oh, and I’ve got some Do you want to, you know, try it, we just picked it up, either that day or the day before or something. And so we a few of us tried it, I think one or two of the clients that were with me decided to pass. And that was a situation where they had they, the clients had judgment about the fact that she was buying raw milk. And they didn’t think that that was necessarily safe for her kids. And the right thing to do, and again, it got in their way of actually hearing the things that she had to say the stories that she was sharing the insight. And the you have to overcome the judgment, because it wasn’t about that, you know, you don’t throw throw everything else you know about a person out because they feed their children or they and they themselves drink raw milk? No, that’s their choice. It’s legal in that state. They weren’t doing anything illegal. So be curious about it. Instead, ask more questions to find out.
Adam Baruh 22:36
Yeah, that’s a great segue to to step number two, ask good questions. So why, you know, why is it important that we ask good questions in this path towards empathy?
Rob Volpe 22:46
Well, if you don’t ask good questions, you’re not going to get good information. And then you’re not going to have the information you need to understand the other person’s point of view. So a few different ways that that plays out. Asking good questions. We very often default to using the word y. In our questioning, why did you do this? Why did you do that? And that happens from the time you’re probably three years old, mom starts asking you, why did your dad, why did you draw on the wall and crown? Why did you cut your sister’s hair? You know, why did you pull the cat’s tail? Like, why? Why, why, why? And then in school, same thing, you know, why didn’t you do well on this? Why were you late to class? Why were you this? You know, why, why, why. And that continues into our work life as well. And very similar questions that we get at school, it puts you on the defensive. So if you’re asking, if you’re starting your question with the word why you’re putting somebody on the defensive right away, and they’re going to try to rationalize and make excuses for their behavior or, you know, excuse the problem instead of really opening up if you ask why in a different way. So instead of why were you late with this report, maybe try. Tell me what was going on with you and you’re trying to get that report done? Or how can I help you get the report done on time in the future? You know, and try to find out what is happening but not use the word why even the why is what you want to know. Ask it in using a different word use, you know who, what, where? when, how. Rephrase the question, and you’ll get a better quality answer. Also, be careful not to lead as in the courtroom dramas and talk about leading the witness. ask leading questions that are you know, really just to affirm your viewpoint. You want to be very broad and exploratory with your questions.
Adam Baruh 24:53
Yeah. And this, this informs us as to the title of your book, which is tell me more about that solving. In the empathy, empathy crisis, one conversation at a time then so you know that tell me more about that. That’s very a great open ended way to, to get to the meat right of the of the conversation.
Rob Volpe 25:12
Absolutely. And some people do you know, the they’re not really sure. What type of question to ask, tell me more about fill in the blank is just a beautiful open ended question. And it lets the person that you’ve asked, take the conversation wherever they they need to take it based on interviews truly going on with them. Right, exactly. That’s always a good one to have in your back pocket.
Adam Baruh 25:42
Yep. So step three, I think step three, like as hard as dismantling judgment is step three, which is actively listen, I feel that here in the year 2022, this is probably the toughest skill set to have, especially. And I do want to kind of go into another line of questioning here too, which is around, you know, remote workforces, which are very prevalent today, you know, active listening, I’m here at my company, my consulting agency suite centric, I actually just had my sales team go through an active listening course. Because I mean, just, you know, even in selling, I mean, selling is so much. I guess selling so much requires good active listening skills. Because, you know, I think the pattern of of, you know, that we’ve fallen into from time to time is feeling like we have to sell ourselves more than just letting the client talk. And then, you know, solving for the problem that there based on the conversation they’re having with you in the first place, right? So, you know, I’m, I guess I’m curious, like, where active listening comes in to empathy for you? And why it’s, it’s so relevant to the empathy conversation.
Rob Volpe 27:00
Yeah, well, and I love I mean, empathy is so critical within the sales process, as well. You know, empathy is this. Empathy enables the skills that let us be the people that we are or want to be, and it enables communication, persuasion, collaboration, problem solving, ideation, forgiveness, compassion, trust. So you know, in the sales process, if you’re selling to somebody, you need to understand what their problem is. Even if you’re selling, you know, pens to somebody, you have to understand, well, how do you use your pen? What do you what do you like, do is dependent? That’s a good pen for you, you know, what sort of grip Do you like it with a fuzzy Nebby grip on the front, you’ve got to ask questions. And then you have to listen to the answers. And by listening to those answers, you’re gonna understand who that other person is, and be able to then use persuasion as to why your product might be the right fit for them. Or sometimes you say, You know what, based on what you’ve told me, I don’t think this is the right solution, you might want to try this over here instead. And all of that is then building trust and confidence, that you’ve heard that and you understand what their problem is, which is, you know, and then as you explain your own, and well, here’s why our pen is the best. And if that is legitimately the case, you’ll be able to hopefully make the sale. And active listening is about being present. So you know, cell phone down, laptop, closed, up a set a zoom call, you need your laptop, open, but elite, you’re listening, and paying attention and observing, observing body language, observing what you’re seeing, you know, in the background, if you’re on a call with somebody, and they’ve got a kid doing cartwheels behind them, take some time to ask them like, how’s everything going? And you need to ask his bot that cartwheel gymnast in the background, what has to happen? Because we’re all human. And I think that’s, that’s one of the things that in this era now of more remote work. And in the pandemic, I think we’re kind of reconnecting with the fact that we are human, and our humanity is that there’s always more shit going on than just the work and can’t keep those two things. So compartmentalize. It’s not healthy. But you’ve got to be present. You got to listen like I might ask you Well, Adam, what I see on the desk behind you, there’s, I can’t tell if those are apples or peaches or?
Adam Baruh 29:38
Ah, those are apples that have been sitting there for about 10 days.
Rob Volpe 29:44
And who brought the apples in?
Adam Baruh 29:47
I did with the intention of eating healthier lunches.
Rob Volpe 29:51
Okay, and but you didn’t eat them.
Adam Baruh 29:54
No, I didn’t.
Rob Volpe 29:56
So, tell me about that. Tell me more about that. Well,
Adam Baruh 29:59
the most motivation was there, but the execution was not. I don’t know why I haven’t gotten to them yet. But I, they’re still there because I intend to, even though they may not be as in prime condition for eating as they were when I first bought them.
Rob Volpe 30:15
Awesome. So you know, I, we could go down the trail I could ask you like, what what prompted you to choose apples of all the things that’s, you know, summers? So there’s all these other fruits available? What made the apple the right choice? What kept you from eating it? What do you have for lunch the last few days lots of questions I could ask. But really, it all came from because I noticed that you had some fruit I was actively listening, not just using my ears, but as paying attention to other things that were going on. And now I’ve learned that Oh, Adam is working to eat healthier lunches, there’s you know, and we can connect and bonded over that. I’m trying to do the same thing. And we can have that conversation as well. But that’s because I was actively listening.
Adam Baruh 31:00
And I’m glad you actually touched on. It doesn’t just involve your ears and your hearing. But it’s it’s your site and looking at body language, its observational skills, and just like looking to see what isn’t the environment?
Rob Volpe 31:15
Yeah, absolutely. And the things that you’re sensing, there’s a story in the book, chapters called the ghost in the room. There’s one situation where I was with respondent, and he had lost his nephew, 2627 year old nephew recently, in probably like eight weeks or so before our sit down interview. But when I asked him to introduce himself, I mean, he went right into that. And he could just tell, and I had the sense that like, oh, we need to spend some time and I could almost see like this kind of or wait haziness, kind of off above him to the left, as though that were his ambulance. And the way I interpreted it was that the energy of his nephew, we got to spend some time honoring the nephew and finding out what that was all about, and how that affected him, before we got into the topic of soup, which is why we were actually there, and what the interview was about. And I’d spent about 45 minutes talking with him and hearing stories about the nephew and how his death has affected him. And the journey that he’s on in the chapter is largely that story that was really moving. And then how I was able to go from that into finally talking about soup, you know, and I got a lot of really great insight out of him ultimately, on soup, but it was because I took the time to hear what he wanted. I’ve put my own needs aside and sensed what he needed. And then, you know, took the time to explore that with him.
Adam Baruh 32:51
Yeah, because it’s trust building, right? I mean, that’s like empathy is kind of like a contract that you’re you’re engaging in with some with another person where it’s a two way street, and but that you’re not going to get there without building that trust and empathy skills are going to get you there better. Yeah, absolutely. So step four, integrate into understanding. So tell us a little bit about, you know, what, what this means. So you’ve, you know, you’ve you’ve dismantled your judgment, you’ve asked good questions, you’ve gotten a lot of great feedback, you’ve been doing your active listening, and, you know, looking at body language and really hearing, you know, what is the person saying? And then and then this step for integrating understanding, yeah, tell us a little bit more about that.
Rob Volpe 33:39
So step four addresses. One of the other common misconceptions about empathy, which is that if I’m going to have if I’m going to take on the point of view of somebody else, that must mean that I’m going to sacrifice my own. And that is absolutely not the case. So the story I loved his house and the game I like to play. You know, because Adam, hey, it’s summer. Let’s go get some ice cream. Okay, great. Well, Adam, what’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?
Adam Baruh 34:10
Oh, would you like me to answer that would be probably mint chocolate chip.
Rob Volpe 34:14
mint chocolate chip. Okay. I tend to like vanilla or more will say vanilla. Usually I say chocolate, but I do like vanilla. I like vanilla, and just straightforward vanilla. You like mint chocolate chip, which, you know, that’s like toothpaste. Like why would I eat there? Now that’s me being judgmental about it. And instead, I want to make room in my head that hey, there’s other ways of enjoying ice cream. There’s other flavors that people like and it’s okay. And maybe I should be curious and ask you questions about what it is about mint chocolate chip that you liked so much. So then then hopefully you would ask me the same about vanilla so that I could learn something and have more understanding And so it’s it’s except integrate into understanding step four. It’s about making room in your head, that there are other ways to view the world. And that’s okay. And you need to be curious about that and accept it. And you have to be careful. That’s a step I find the judgment really starts to come back into play quite a bit.
Adam Baruh 35:22
You shared a story about a retiree, this, this woman named Amelia, and how this really helped inform your development of empathy. So if you would just, you know, kind of recount that story for us here and how that impacted you.
Rob Volpe 35:38
Yeah, Amelia, my all time favorite interviews that I ever had. And she talked a lot about, while we were interviewing, she was always doing this, and movement where she had her hands like one above the other. And she would turn her hands around. And it was like she had a ball in her hand, like a volleyball or something, she’d be turning around. And she would say, when she was talking about a situation or something that had happened to her, she was like, Oh, you’ve always got to turn it around, you’ve got to look at things from a different way. And this is before, I really had as much appreciation and understanding about empathy. I knew it was important. But I didn’t understand the mechanics of it nearly as much. But she kept always doing that. And we asked her later on, she she told us about how she used to be a corporate executive, and develop carpal tunnel and both of her wrists, and she had to have the surgery for the carpal tunnel. And while she was healing, the surgeon recommended that you do Tai Chi. And because the movements within Tai Chi are really good for strengthening and calming the mind and the body. She was resistant at first, but she finally did it. And she actually fell in love with it. So much so that she started teaching inner city kids, Tai Chi lessons, and you know, from four to 14 years old, and that was great. So I actually asked her to give us a lesson. So we moved the furniture out of the way in her living room, she’d said yes, moving the furniture out of the way in the living room. And she gave us that that moment. But it really that whole experience opened me up to understanding empathy more in thinking about it, and really started my own journey through yoga and other kinds of practices that I’ve explored over the years. And that’s the thing, it’s like, you know, I’m always fascinated by the everyday people on the street. And you know, celebrities are great, I’ve got a few that I love, and would love to meet at some point. But it’s really the everyday people that we all have these really fascinating stories, we just have to take the time to ask the questions, and listen to the answers. Because you can find that inspiration in the every day and the people you might overlook standing in line behind you at the grocery store.
Adam Baruh 38:05
Absolutely. Okay, so step five is using solution imagining really just kind of getting into someone doing the work to get into someone else’s point of view. So elaborate on that for us.
Rob Volpe 38:18
Yeah, so that is the point where you are actually now step you’ve you’ve cleared the path, you’ve gotten the information. And now you’re trying to step into somebody else’s shoes, you’re using your solution imagination, to imagine what it might be like to be them to be somebody else. A lot of the stories in that section of the book have to do with There’s one story that’s about immigration, and what the chapter is called, what are you willing to sacrifice, because I got the opportunity to interview some immigrants up in Canada. But then the other stories in there really relate to our own. In the United States, our addiction to success and how success is defined. And I got to do a couple of projects where we were exploring, you know, life with working class Americans, people that make less than $50,000 as a household income, of which that’s a huge, huge part of the United States that a lot of us will overlook, you know, we describe it as flyover country or you know, use our you know, elitist, coastal lifestyle to poopoo. And there are a lot of people and they have a right to be heard and a story to tell and in some cases, I think have the right way to approach their life where, you know, I started asking people because I was hearing them talk about how happy they were to have life and work you know, kind of separated you leave your boots at the door, so to speak, and that got me thinking I can about my own choices and like, oh, yeah, cuz I’m going to leave this, you know, evening interview and debrief with the clients and go back to the hotel and order room service and keep working on other things and other projects and be up until midnight or later. And they’ve, you know, they left work at work, and now they’re, you know, having their fun or, you know, doing tending to their family and spending time where it should be spent. And by putting myself into their shoes, being able to use my solution imagination, it led me to ask you more questions of them and be like, well, what if they? What if they could be new? What if they could double their income? What if they could make six figures? What if they could have all those things? Would they want that? And I asked that question. And a lot of that is in the book. And in those chapters of, you know, what are you willing to sacrifice?
Adam Baruh 40:58
You know, it sounds also that, you know, curiosity just comes into play so strongly with this, you know, when we don’t have the curiosity to understand somebody else’s kind of background and perspective, we just kind of, that’s when we start to be judgmental, right. But having the curiosity gives us that, you know, ability to really think about hmm, you know, I wonder what this is like for them. I wonder how they deal with this sort of situation, right? And it unifies us when you can get to that place?
Yeah, oh, it’s fundamental to empathy. You can’t you can’t get you can’t be empathetic if you’re not curious. First. Yeah. And we all should be curious about the world around us and other people.
Adam Baruh 41:42
With our co workers, our children calling, you know.
Our neighbors, the clerk at the grocery store, you know, everybody, everyone around us.
Adam Baruh 41:52
Yeah, I’ve shared the story on this podcast before but all I’m, you know, I think it’s good. It’s a good one to illustrate around empathy. And, you know, I guess showing where we’re not always perfect. And that’s okay. Right. So my wife and I used to do wedding photography, we used to be wedding photographers. And we had worked with this couple, we did their engagement photos, we met with them several times, I believe we had dinner with them, really, really liked this couple, we were super excited for their wedding. And the day of the wedding came. And we showed up. And the wedding planner from Hell was there. I mean, just this person. And I was a very established wedding photographer. So I didn’t need a wedding planner to kind of tell me, right, what I should be doing where I should be, right. So there was, you know, probably, you know, one of the the first mistake I made was feeling like, what’s this person telling me what to do, like, I know where to go, like, you know, that’s obviously that was my fault in just going there and thinking this was some sort of a power play, right. But it continued all through the night in it, unfortunately, it really did kind of Jade, that experience that my wife and I had and, you know, the couple, you know, I’m sure it was immune to what was going on. But at the end, we were just, you know, we felt just not happy with the experience, it wasn’t what we expected. You know, and a lot of times after these weddings, we would just go sit at the bar or whatever, and just have a glass of wine and just kind of, you know, kind of come down from the day, right. And so we were we did that we were sitting there, there was like an outdoor little fireplace area. And we were just sitting there having a glass of wine and, you know, talking about how it was such a rough day. And along comes the wedding planner. And she, you know, wanted to sit down with us. So we’re like, okay, so, you know, we did, you know, had a little bit of small talk, and then, you know, she then shared with us how her son was having open heart surgery the next day, and she was sorry for you know, she felt like she wasn’t herself that day. And it really kind of struck me as man, I, I really wish I didn’t just go into just being angry, you know, during this whole wedding, I just let myself get kind of taken away from, you know, the feeling of like, like, I felt like she didn’t vote she thought we didn’t know we were doing right it was my own kind of like fear and insecurities that drove this when in fact, if I had done the five steps of towards empathy, you know, I might have kind of picked up that, you know, this person might have something else going on in their life really. And you know, obviously it was not a real great opportunity to dive into that during the wedding. But afterwards when we got into that we did end up having a nice conversation. And so I was I always look back that was such a kind of like a life lesson for me and trying not to be judgmental and to just really think think about that. Like when I do encounter people that are difficult. I always I always now take a step back like hmm, I wonder what’s going on in their life. Maybe they’re maybe Something bigs happening. You know,
It’s, it’s so rarely when you run into things like that it’s so rarely about you. I think we we are programmed to think that it’s about us so that you know, we’ve got something that we’ve done wrong, or it’s about our insecurities. But if we take the time to just ask the question, like, how are you today? Who knows? She might have shared that with you early on? I don’t know. You know, and had you known that when you first arrived? And you know, had she been comfortable saying, Thank you for being here. I’m just gonna give you a warning. My son’s having open heart surgery tomorrow. So I’m a little you know, that’s old. But she was also probably want not wanting to exude weakness herself that she might not be at the top of her game. Right. But yeah, have you had all of that? Have you see what you had, then at the end? You had empathetic repair? Yeah, because he came to you. And she explained what was going on, and you were able to understand and connect, because there was an empathetic failure. early on.
Adam Baruh 46:10
Yeah, I have a quote from YouTube. Because I, I’d like to, you know, expand on this a little bit further. Empathy isn’t achieved in a day. And the skill isn’t developed in a linear fashion. mastering these skills is an iterative process more like a loop de loop with curly Q’s making two steps forward, one step back. And that’s okay. Even today, I’m nowhere near perfect. And I, you know, I think that’s such an important statement that you made, because, you know, the goal isn’t to become perfect. The goal is to just become a better listener and a better human, right?
Yeah. Nobody is perfect. We’re all works in progress. And I wanted, it was important for me to acknowledge that, and stay humble. Yeah, with everybody. So, yeah.
Adam Baruh 47:02
So you know, another another quote that I want to make here from you is, you know, around, you know, kind of the day and age in which we live, right that the 21st century. Unfortunately, empathy skills are at an all time low in the United States, and have been since the start of the 21st century. So, you know, I feel this as well, I mean, there’s been so much divisiveness, I really was hoping that the pandemic would be something that unifies us more, I, you know, it’s in many ways, I know it has, but, you know, in several other areas, they’re still such a great divide. You know, we all want the same things. As people, we just want to be loved. We want to give love, we want to, you know, our families to be healthy and happy. So why why do you think it’s so hard for us to set aside our differences and to look into what somebody else? Somebody else’s perspective might be?
Yeah, that’s the billion dollar question, or that’s the society saving question, isn’t it? The, you know, there’s so many things that have led to our current state of empathetic failure with each other. And, you know, so where we need to step back and unravel or solve quite a few problems. And I think, you know, we’re through globalization, technology advances and things we’re exposed to a lot more than we used to be. You know, people from different cultures, or races or ethnicities, just people that are different. We’re interacting with each other, a lot more are bumping into each other. And so that’s requiring us to be more empathetic all the time, you know, it’s, so it was, so there’s a heightened requirement, I think, for us to be more empathetic, or a need for us to, and then you’ve got, you know, and, look, you’ve got reality TV and the media over the last kind of 2025 years, that have sent these messages out around competition, and that we’re in competition and it’s, you know, whoever can flip the table over and storm off. They win. And not everybody looks at that as the entertainment that it is intended to be. But start to look at it as that’s how I’m supposed to behave or, you know, I’m supposed to win at all costs. And you have, you know, workplace ethos and culture and the way business schools have taught people to, you know, get ahead and get to the top and so that hasn’t always required or perm. voted empathy even though empathy is so critical to success in the workplace, and then, you know, there’s social media and the algorithm and the way that that isolates us from each other, you know, and just even in current things that are happening right now, you know, with the January 6 committee or the decision on Roe v. Wade, and so many other issues, gun violence, I’m noticing on social media, I’m really only hearing one perspective and one side of the story. Because of the curation of the bubble, my bubble of the people that I like, the things that then they’re seeking out, it’s feeding those things back to me. And it keeps me in this this bubble. I noticed on Twitter the other day, there was a tweet from somebody that showed up in my feed, and it showed up because somebody that I follow responded to it. And the tweet said 1984 called. And you know it, something about tyranny and dystopian future and not on all these things. And I looked at it, I actually took a screenshot of it. Because what startled me was, I was like, okay, yeah, I get that I see that. Personally, look, I mean, I live in San Francisco, I’m a gay man. It’s not a hard guess, to think that I’m liberal and on the left. And so I was expecting that the person knew I was like, going, oh, yeah, that’s what the right is trying to do. They’re taking away all our rights. They’re slowing down gun legislation, there’s, you know, all of the they can’t even accept that the election was won fair and square, and they’re believing and all this, who are a fraud. And ultimately, I saw that the post came from Lorena, Ober, the congresswoman in Colorado goes very far. On the right, and she was talking about the left. And I said, Oh, my gosh, like she, you know. She’s we, we all have the same fear. We’re just in our echo chambers. And we have to dismantle that we have to figure out how to get beyond it, to start having the conversations to remember that we are all humans first, you know, Americans in this country. Second, we all have very similar hopes and fears and aspirations for ourselves, and start to use that to find our common ground again, an empathy, you have to have empathy in order to do that. I’m not going to go engage the congresswoman in the discussion, but it really struck me that oh, my gosh, I thought that she was talking that put tweet was talking about her. Right, it was actually talking about the left. And I would have trouble agreeing with that statement. But it’s like, okay, well, let me understand what are the things that she’s seeing that she thinks the left is doing, that are making her tweet, something like that?
Adam Baruh 53:22
Yeah. I mean, you know, speaking about gun control, obviously, you know, a very important topic for a long time, that is, you know, especially today, I think we’re starting to see perhaps a little bit of movement, but you just see that both sides for against gun control are just entrenched on the extreme edges, where, you know, they’re, in order to get to probably the place where it needs to be there needs to be some listening from both sides. Right. Like, you know, for me, and I’ll also, you know, mentioned that I am liberal, I grew up in San Francisco, and, you know, so that’s, you know, shaped me for sure. And I’ve guilty of, you know, why hasn’t anything been done, like, but, you know, the Second Amendment was built around this idea that the government is gonna go like, military against the people to, you know, impose their, their will and desire. But that was written in what 17, late 1700s. Right. Yeah. And, you know, so, so really, I would challenge myself to do and anybody, you know, on either side is like, Okay, I mean, that’s been the argument that people have been making, you know, like, I understand you don’t want the government taking away your guns and just kind of reflecting on where that comes from. I mean, that’s step number one is like, you know, what, what’s behind that right? Like, why why does the person think that way and also at the same time hoping that they would, you know, try to understand my perspective like where I don’t think you know, guns are safe and or the answer right, and the the solution is going to be in there in the middle. And I just, you know, it’s a little disheartening to be here in 2022, after so many, you know, situations of gun violence thinking like, why are we still not in the middle? Like, why? Why are we not coming together? And empathy is the thing that I think will get us there. So why haven’t we gotten there as a society with empathy yet?
Rob Volpe 55:22
Good question. And I’ll, I’ll say there’s a chapter in the book called fear. It’s in the dismantle judgment section. And I got to go to the NRA Gun Show, about 10 years ago, with a couple of colleagues. And it was fascinating. We were doing a study on carry and conceal weapons. And, you know, one of the early questions we got was like, Why do you feel the need to carry like, Why? Why do you have to carry with you, and fear is ultimately what it boiled down to, it’s a scary world out there, they’re not sure what’s going to happen. And if they’re going to be able to protect themselves, and their loved ones, most importantly, and so they choose to carry. And I then, after that study finished, I was back here in San Francisco and had brunch with some friends and told them about the study. And they expressed their own in their very left. They express it, they are afraid themselves about and of people with guns, and they don’t know what those people with guns you’re going to do. And yet, I found in there, the research we were doing, I was I was really impressed with how well informed and well versed and responsible the gun owners were that I met. And, you know, obviously, he was at the NRA gun show. And then we did some focus groups afterward. But they done the training, they understood about storing their guns, you know, in a secure way. So they can’t get into the wrong hands, whether it’s IDs or somebody with ill intent. You know, how to properly handle a gun, how to use again, how not to just, you know, hop off, so to speak, or use excessive force, there was a lot of a lot of that. So I came away from it. And I write about in the chapter like we’re all at the same place, we’re afraid of what might happen. And that is like at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy, we want to keep ourselves safe and secure and our loved ones. And that’s where the conversation I mean, really, truly needs to happen. And it but there’s so much politics going on. And I think the secret is for the people that are looking for more gun safety legislation and gun control, to acknowledge the fear. And it’s not just that, when it’s not just the reassurance like right now what I hear is reassurance we’re not going to take your guns away. That’s all we want. Really, it’s, we understand, we all want to live in a safe America. And we understand that guns do play a role in keeping people safe. So we expect and respect that. However, we want to feel safe, as well. And how do we find common ground where you have background checks, age limits on guns, all the things that are you know, people ultimately want? And how do we find middle ground on that, but it’s, it’s, it’s kind of like, the politicians have to get removed out of it, because they’re just making it a spectacle at this point. And it’s the concerned citizens need to come together and start to have that conversation and then go to their elected officials and say, This is where we need to be. But really powerful gun lobby, that, you know, doesn’t want to take away anything, the gun manufacturers, you know, while they want their guns in the right hands and use the right way. They need to make money. You know, that’s a capitalist society. So it gets really complicated. But yeah, hopefully, hopefully, some steps are being taken and that those less current legislation is we’re talking has been proposed, that can go through and there might be more to come,
Adam Baruh 59:22
Yeah, very, very well said and I think, you know, using empathy, you know, you got right to the heart of it, which is fear. And, you know, it really would just start with just recognizing each side recognizing their sphere, and, you know, acknowledging that, and then I think some solutions can come out of that, you know, hopefully politicians and lobbyists don’t get in the way. But, you know, they’re there as well. And they have their own interests. And so we should also try to, you know, in the spirit of empathy, try to understand, you know, their motivations and so on and so forth. So, anyway, as we wrap up here today, I want to I want to make one more quote I’m read one more quote that you made. And then one last question. And again, thank you for your time being here today. In the workplace Empathy helps with collaboration among teams, improved leadership, ability, understanding and relationships with employees and decision making. The EQ emotional intelligence expectation of employees and leaders has increased precisely because empathy skills have declined. So the question, the final question I want to leave with you is, you know, in regards to and this just doesn’t have to be related exclusively to businesses, but, you know, where, where do you see the future of leadership?
Acknowledging their humanity being more empathetic? And, you know, I get asked a lot by leaders, oh, if I’m empathetic, doesn’t that mean that I’m going to be weak? Or that I’m gonna get walked all over? And no, it just means that you’re taking in point of view of your employees, your whatever the constituents, your employees, your consumers. So you’re going to be able to make smarter decisions, you’re going to be able to communicate more effectively. Because as you communicate back, even if you have to make a decision that goes against what, say employees want or is not going to be popular necessarily. You’re able to communicate it in a way that acknowledges that you’ve heard them. And they’re able to put context around why you maybe have to make an alternate decision that’s good for the business. But maybe not necessarily good for the employee, or hopefully, you’ll be able to come to a solution. That’s the win win for everybody.
Adam Baruh 1:01:40
Yeah. Well, thank you, again, for being my guest here today for taking the time to speak with me about empathy. I really appreciate you being here.
Rob Volpe 1:01:48
Thank you, Adam. This has been really wonderful, great questions.
Adam Baruh 1:01:51
Rob Volpe is an astute observer of life and a master storyteller who brings empathy and compassion to the human experience. As CEO of Ignite 360. He leads a team of insights, strategy and creative professionals serving the world’s leading brands across a range of industries. He is the author of Tell Me More About That. Solving the Empathy Crisis One Conversation at a Time. as a thought leader in the role of empathy and marketing and in the workplace. He is a contributor to Entrepreneurs Leadership Network, and frequently speaks on the topic at conferences, corporations and colleges. He’s a graduate of Syracuse University’s SI Newhouse School of Public Communications and lives in San Francisco with his husband and three cats. You can read more about Rob on our website, eiqmediallc.com/thechange. Our theme song and sound engineering was provided by Shane Suffriti. You can listen to more of Shane’s music at www.shanesuffriti.com. If you have a topic to discuss about anxiety or mental health in the workplace, or if you’d like to tell us what you think about our podcast, send me an email at email@example.comThank you all for listening. We’ll see you next time on The Change.
EIQ Media, LLC 1:03:08
The Change is produced and distributed by EIQ media LLC. Elevate your emotional IQ with podcasts and content focused on leadership, mental health, entrepreneurship and more.