1 Big idea to think about

  • Empathy unlocks understanding and allows you to relieve the tension in any relationship.  

2 ways you can apply this

  • Listen to someone with the intent to understand. Don’t offer advice or take action. Just listen. 
  • Use the phrase, “Let me make sure I understand you,” in the next 24 hours. 

3 Questions to ask

  • Does having empathy come naturally to me?
  • When was the last time I really felt understood?
  • When was the last time I really took the time to understand someone else?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • Resolving a seemingly impossible conflict (3:47)
  • The role of empathy and understanding in resolving conflict (14:42)
  • How empathy and understanding one another can change the world (17:08)
  • The power of empathy lies within us (19:09)
  • Listening not to agree but to understand (20:09)
  • How to listen to understand (21:28)
  • The gateway to opening up a resistant relationship (23:39)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown (00:07):

Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, the author of two New York Times best sellers, Essentialism and Effortless. I’m on this journey with you to learn how to be better at negotiation and conflict resolution. Have you ever experienced tension in your relationships at work or at home? Have these tensions ever lasted for an extended period of time where the communication became frozen, the relationship strained, or even estranged? Are any of these tensions occurring right now? What would happen if you could immediately dissolve that tension? What if you could shift from gossiping about each other to supporting each other? What if you could unfreeze the communication and have it flow openly and naturally again? Today I will share a story that changed my life, also, something I am learning, and actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you will be able to eliminate tension in almost any relationship. Let’s get to it.

Greg McKeown (01:47):

Remember to teach the ideas in this episode to someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours of listening. You might listen to the podcast together and talk about it afterward. At 2:54 AM on the 12th of October, 1984, a bomb detonated in a hotel in Brighton, England. The blast brought down a five-ton chimney stack, which crashed down through the floors into the basement, leaving a gaping hole in the hotel’s facade. Firemen said that many lives were saved because of the well-built Victorian hotel remaining standing. The bomb was an assassination attempt from the provisional Irish Republican Army, the IRA, against the members of the British government. Thirty-one people were injured. Five people died. Margaret Thatcher, the then prime minister, had been up working on her conference speech for the next day and barely escaped.

Greg McKeown (02:52):

I was seven years old at the time of that bombing. I still remember waking up and hearing about it. The troubles, as they were called in Northern Ireland, felt personal to me. My grandfather was from Northern Ireland, along with his parents and grandparents, and extended family. What stands out to me now is how normal it all was. It seemed like news just in was often about the latest IRA bomb. Even beyond the trauma of it all was the quiet unease that left its residue everywhere and on everyone. Long before terrorism was a term widely used in the United States, we had known it and had lived with it. And there was this sense, I never remember spoken exactly, that this would never be resolved. It had been going on for a hundred years. The next prime minister, John Major, came into office determined to do something about it.

Greg McKeown (03:55):

He said, “The whole of my adult life, I remembered the same headlines. The people barely noticed that a soldier killed another civilian murdered. Another teenager beaten up, and people had almost got themselves in a mood where they had accepted it. Northern Ireland was different, and therefore, it rolled on. And you moved on to the next item of news. Well, I didn’t think that was right. I thought that would be utterly unacceptable if it was in Surry or North Umberland, and it cannot be acceptable in Northern Ireland. Let’s see what can be done about it.” According to the major years documentary, for some time, the prime minister had been kept informed of a secret link between the IRA and the British government, by which information between the war parties could be exchanged. Later in February 1993, Downing Street received a message through the link, apparently from the IRA. It was passed immediately to the prime minister.

Greg McKeown (04:58):

It was a very startling message. Indeed. It said the conflict is over, but we need your help to bring it to a close and then expanded on that thought. It was the first signal from the IRA that they might be open to a dialogue in order to negotiate a permanent ceasefire. And this gave John Major the impetus to bring parties together, to begin such a dialogue, even though the IRA later denied having sent that message. His goal was to create a set of principles that could underpin a full-scale peace settlement and be the basis of an Anglo-Irish declaration. John Major said everybody was suspicious of everybody else. And so the trick was to produce a declaration that would produce a whole stream of principles that, upon these key points and others, would reassure the unionists, the nationalists and bring in the para militaries to see that there was a reason to turn to a democratic approach. Complicating all of this, the violence continued even as the negotiation did. The temptation was to end all dialogue, but Major continued the talks despite the violence, and the first declaration of common principles was agreed to. The way was opened for further talks.

Greg McKeown (06:30):

And eight months later, the IRA called for a cease-fire, which lasted for the next 18 months. Major, said the Tasha, the prime minister of Ireland by a different name, and I have now agreed on a joint declaration on Northern Ireland. It is a declaration for democracy and dialogue, and it is based on consent. It makes no compromise on strongly held principles. This early progress suddenly gained even greater momentum when Tony Blair came into office in a massive electoral swing. It gave him the political capital to hold direct talks with the parties involved within 14 days of becoming prime minister. He went to Northern Ireland on October 13th, 1997. For the first time in, let’s say, 75ish years of conflict, a British prime minister met with the leader of Shinhan, the unofficial political wing of the Irish Republican army. When speaking to reporters afterward, Prime Minister Tony Blair defended his cordial treatment of Adams.

Greg McKeown (07:44):

Blair said, “I treated Jerry Adams and the members of Shinhan in the same way as I treat any human being. And what I think is important about the situation here in Northern Ireland is that we do actually treat each other as human beings.” Tom Kelly, who was the director of communications and the UK government’s Northern Ireland office leader said, “Most of us had baggage with Northern Ireland, which actually made it more difficult.” What was lacking was the engagement of the Northern Ireland political parties with each other. The question became, can you get these war parties around the same table? And one of the breakthroughs in being able to get these parties to talk to each other was first an invitation from Tony Blair to the leaders of Shinhan. He said of that meeting, “And a lot of those first meetings were me listening with Martin McGinnis, explain what it was like to be a Republican and why they felt that the British had treated the Irish so badly.”

Greg McKeown (08:53):

“And they were then able to go back to their people and say, no, we are sitting in Downing Street around the cabinet table with that guy. And we are telling him, we’re telling him how we feel. And I was lucky,” he goes on, “at the time because I had the political space to do it. It wasn’t causing me huge problems.” Right after that meeting, the leader of Shinhan, Jerry Adams, a man who for years, while I was growing up, was not allowed to even be seen on television, and he said all of us have to learn about how to move on from the old failed agenda. And we shouldn’t underestimate the difficulties at the same time. This was a good moment. That’s what was happening. They were being allowed to talk, and for hours, and at number 10 Downing street, to be really heard.

Greg McKeown (09:53):

And it changed everything at the time, Tom Kelly explained. Only 13% of people believed that the peace talks would be successful within the timeframe that had been set. 87% did not. From his point of view, the learned pessimism of a quarter of a century of failed attempts. And even when they met finally together to try to negotiate a new agreement based on the principles that John Major had originally outlined when they got there, Blair said, we arrived and David Trimble said, there’s absolutely no way I am signing this. It’s an outrage. And the Shinhan people said they weren’t going to sign it in any event, whatever happened. In a spontaneous press conference, right at the beginning of this Blair said, “I feel the hand of history upon our shoulder.” And then they spent the next three days in the most intense negotiations imaginable, literally all day and most of the night for three days. This was a massive agenda, an ambitious agenda to try to take on power-sharing, decommissioning of weapons, trying to figure out what to do with the policing situation, dismantling all of the security operators that had grown up for the last 30 years.

Greg McKeown (11:24):

How do you handle the prisoners on both sides? Kelly says that the government had recognized that you had to address all those issues at once in the same place and at the same time. And that’s what distinguished it from every other attempt by the British government for the last quarter of a century. At times, according to Blair, it looked as if they’d lost the whole thing. Still, it all crescendoed in 1998 into the Good Friday agreement and historic agreement for peace in Northern Ireland. After the announcement, Blair went out, talked to the press. “I want to say this to the politicians and the people of Northern Ireland with all the force that I can muster. Even now, this will not work unless, in your will and in your mind, you make it work. Unless we extend the hand of friendship to those who are once foe, unless, before we condemn, we at least try to see the other side.” Kelly made this observation. He said it only happened because he kept at it. He kept at it; he kept at it. He kept at it, and he kept at us to keep at it. That’s why 20 years later, my children have grown up in a different world. Keeping at it led to one of the most extraordinary relationship turnarounds in recent political memory.

Greg McKeown (12:56):

The point of this can be summarized by something. George Thompson has said, “That empathy absorbs tension, understanding, eliminates tension.” That image of Shinhan being in number 10 Downing Street and being listened to for hours. And I’m not saying for a second that everything that was said in that meeting was true in that sense of really seeing the whole picture, the richest view, not saying that at all. Empathy, of course, isn’t even agreeing. It’s not saying that somebody else is right. You’re not even making that judgment call. You’re just letting people be seen, be heard, know that their story, their experience matters.

Greg McKeown (13:53):

And the more people feel heard, the less they feel they need to maintain that tension to maintain that resistance. Let’s go back to the questions at the beginning. Have you ever experienced tension in your relationships at work or at home? Yes. It might not be like the troubles in Northern Ireland, but have these tensions you’ve experienced, ever lasted for an extended period of time where the communication became frozen, the relationships strained or even estranged? Are any of these tensions occurring right now? What would happen if you could immediately dissolve that tension? What if you could shift from talking about each other to talking with each other? What if you could unfreeze the communication and have it flow openly and naturally again? I was asked in my final interview to do my doctorate at Cambridge University whether I believed my proposed research could change the world. That question took me off guard, but how I loved the question. I responded by saying, it depends what you mean by changing the world.

Greg McKeown (15:15):

I said, growing up, I have been witness to it, changing the world in the Northern Ireland conflict. I’ve seen how understanding each other changes everything from conflict to cooperation. But then I said in conflicts closer to home; there may be an even greater opportunity to change the world between parents and their children, between partners, between spouses, between siblings. And it worked too between war organizations, between executive disagreements, lawsuits that could be resolved by the right approach divorces that neither party actually wants, could be changed. So whether in matters of high politics, or in our teams, or with our customers, or at home, empathy, understanding can change the world. The word empathy comes from a Latin word and a Greek word. Em is from Latin. It means “to see through,” and pathy is Greek. And it means “the eye of the other”. So empathy is to see through the eye of the other.

Greg McKeown (16:46):

And in my experience, it is among the most dramatic changes that can take place between two people. What it takes in most situations is for one person, you, to show the initiative. It’s a little like that experience when you go into an elevator, and if you say nothing to the other person, they will almost certainly say nothing to you. You’ll stand there in awkward silence. But if you look at the other person and you smile at them and you say, hello openly, they will almost certainly match. And sometimes quite exactly the energy and tone and feeling of what you’re expressing. And if you go further than that, if you have a full conversation with them, you’ll find that not all the time, but most of the time, they will reciprocate what you offer to them. And so it is with understanding and with empathy. So the initiative, and also therefore the power lies within us to at least take the first step to listen and to listen.

Greg McKeown (17:59):

When people say things that you really disagree with, to recognize that empathy is not the same as agreement. You’re not sitting there judging. Do I agree? Do I disagree? Are they right? Are they wrong? Is my experience different from theirs? You’ll have your chance. You can earn the right to express your side of it, but not right now, not first. We have spent so much of our lives agreeing or disagreeing. It’s almost like we don’t know sometimes that there is an alternative to that, that we can listen with the intent not to agree. We can listen, not with the intent to disagree. We’re not standing in judgment. We’re not listening with the intent even to solve, to do something. We’re listening with a game-changing intent, which is to understand because that is seriously a huge part of why people become frozen in their communication in the first place.

Greg McKeown (19:16):

Here’s the pattern of what you can do. Invite the other person to talk and then let them talk. Your goal is not to take any of it personally. You’ve got to put on your emotional armor because this isn’t even about you. And the hardest thing, of course, is if what they’re saying is on the surface about you, if they’re saying, well, you did this, and you said that, and when you did this, it really hurt my feelings. And when you took this action, this showed me what kind of person you are. I mean, that’s the hardest kind of listening, but if they’re talking, that’s progress. After you’ve given them a chance to talk for a while, use this phrase. It’s such a powerful phrase. We’ll keep coming back to this again. And again, let me make sure I understand you. Let me make sure I understand you will stop the other person talking instantly, which is evidence right before your eyes.

Greg McKeown (20:32):

That the real issue is understanding. You don’t even have to say, let me solve this problem for you. In fact, if you do that, you’ll get a worse response. Okay. Let me take some action. No, what they want is to be understood. There comes a time for some action for some change, but the understanding and the misunderstanding is really the jugular issue under the surface. So when you say, let me make sure I understand you, they’ll stop talking. They will listen. And your job in that moment, of course, is to try to express in your own words what they’ve been saying.

Greg McKeown (21:50):

Undefensively put into your own words, what you think they’re trying to express. Capture, if you can, the full emotion. I’ve been working on this myself for literally the last 25 years. I have learned a lot in that journey. And I’ve learned that the statement, “Let me make sure I understand you,” is the gateway to opening up a frozen, friction-filled resistant relationship.

Greg McKeown (21:53):

So my specific, actionable advice to you is to use the phrase, “Let me make sure I understand you,” at least once in the next 24 to 48 hours. What if you could unfreeze communication in a relationship that is strained or even estranged? What if you could eliminate tension in any relationship? Unresolved tensions at work are the essence of dysfunction there. People stop talking with each other and instead start talking about each other. Think of the economic costs of that. Unresolved tensions at home can make relationships toxic, the culture in the home, toxic. Partners stop talking with each other. Parents stop speaking with their children. A teenager stops speaking with their parents. We can live together and still lose each other. Unresolved tensions between a brother and a brother, a sister and a sister. Think of the cost you have paid in the troubles of your life. There is a way out. The way out is empathy. It’s understanding. These are the most powerful words in the English language.

Greg McKeown (23:22):

Thank you, really, for listening. Would you like to develop the skills we’ve been talking about in this episode in a live series where we can actually practice them in negotiation, in conflict resolution scenarios? If so, sign up at essentialism.com/negotiation. And I’ll let you know, as soon as we’re ready to run the first one. If you have found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive a copy of Effortless. So just send a photo of your review to info@gregmckeown.com. If you haven’t already done it, please sign up for the 1-Minute Wednesday free newsletter. You can sign up at gregmckeown.com/1MW and get access to all sorts of additional resources for free to support you and others in this journey. Remember to subscribe to this podcast. Perhaps do it with other people so that teaching them is easier. And you’re expanding your influence where you are, so you can receive and then teach the next episode.