Podcast host Annette Stevenson is joined by best-selling authors, professional facilitators and speakers, Will Wise and Chad Littlefield to discuss their work in facilitating meaningful communication among leaders and educators. They delve into some of the tools mapped out in their book Ask Powerful Questions: Create Conversations That Matter as well as the importance of intention and empathy as it relates to effective communication and leadership.

Skip to: 01:32 Can you explain the word intention and how it is used in your book?

“Intention is what is the game that we are playing and what do we hope to accomplish, or what are we aiming to accomplish, before this meeting is over or this project is over.”

“It creates a compass that allows us all to navigate toward a future that we want to create.”

Skip to: 03:52 So that intention, and the expressing of the intention, is applicable in organizational meetings, classroom settings, boardroom settings, really anywhere, would you agree with that?

“Our time is our most precious resource.”

“And if you’re able to craft an intention statement, the other people can see themselves in, the amount of buying goes up and the amount of resistance goes way down in the meeting, that’s a pretty big shift.”

“It’s so often that we lose who we’re actually doing our work for.”

Skip to: 09:32 Is it possible for you to provide an example of empathy, apathy and sympathy?

“She was able to put one of her feet in her student’s and her parent’s and her family’s and her educator’s shoes and keep one of her feet grounded in her own reality.”

“We parent better when we can be empathetic.”

Skip to: 19:15 Once you reach that apathy point, there’s a way out of it, you can step back out of it?

“Empathy allows people to be seen and heard and understood exactly for who they are, and for who they are not, and when that happens, people are more likely to contribute, more likely to give their voice, more likely to choose to contribute”

Skip to: 22:04What is the difference between debate and discussion?

“Debate often has this two-sided argument where people are trying to prove and they’re only listening to win and they’re trying to challenge each other.”

Q: I’m going to jump into some of what I uncovered in your book Ask Powerful Questions, you frame a pyramid of skill sets, and the base of that pyramid is intention. Can you explain the word intention as you mean it there, as a foundational skill in that context and how it relates to connecting authentically with people?

A: (Will) When I was writing the book, I shared some of the first drafts with an editor, she said, “You got to put that intention chapter first.” I’m like, “No, no, no, no, it goes later.” And she said, “No, no, no, it’s got to go first.” And she helped me pull it down to the bottom of the pyramid. And I’m so grateful for Paula for doing that because what that did for me and the work that we’re doing is, it creates a space for people to really authentically show up. So, the root word of intention means to stretch, and it’s useful to think about that in a couple different ways. To stretch to include the needs of the whole, right? To move away from me and to include the we, who else do I need to include into my intention.

Second, it allows us to stretch the present moment into the future and pull that future into the present moment right now. What we’ve noticed in working so many different educational programs, facilities, schools and universities is that there are so many meetings that happen, especially at the upper level in which the intent is not clear. It showed up on our calendars, we show up in the room, there may be an agenda, but an intention is different than that. Intention is what is the game that we are playing, and what do we hope to accomplish, or what are we aiming to accomplish before this meeting is over, or this project is over?

So oftentimes, when we are not clear about our intent, people are sitting and listening for whether or not I belong, whether or not I can contribute, whether my voice even matters. So, what happens when you speak a clear intent in your classroom, in your meetings, people can decide, yes, that’s the game I want to play. And what it does is it creates a compass, that allows us all to navigate toward a future that we want to create.

Q: So that intention, and the expressing of the intention, is applicable in organizational meetings, classroom settings, boardroom settings, really anywhere, would you agree with that?

A: (Will) Yes. If before I die, suddenly everybody before they had a meeting would say, the intent of this meeting is dah, dah, dah, and my intent is dah, dah, dah, I would die a very happy man. Because we would be using our time, our time is our most precious resource, we often think about money, but time is really our most precious resource. And what happens when we get clear about our intent is people are willing to show up and contribute. Otherwise, they’re playing the game of oh, am I going to get manipulated? Right? Because manipulation shows up, when we’re trying to get somebody to do something without telling them, that’s what we’re trying to do. So, what happens when you’re clear about your intent, suddenly people are like, oh, and manipulation has to pack its bags and leave and then people jump on board and off you go.

(Chad) I would add one important nuance for me that differentiates intention from solely words like purpose, goal or objective, is the intention, like Will said, ideally includes the needs of the whole. Oftentimes, we show up to a meeting and the leader and whoever’s running that meeting, including a parent having a conversation with a kid, right? They’ve got an agenda or plan of I want this to happen, but that other person or the other people in the meeting, may not care so much about what you want, right? So, an intention stretches into incorporate the needs of the whole, right?

If your intention in asking your son how was school, was to get to know him better and to learn more about him and to connect, but consistently, he’s answering with like, “Fine, school is fine.” Right. The intention I don’t know has been made clear, actually, or that it’s actually been felt, because the intention may not be incorporating his need, what is he actually want and care about in that moment. And if you’re able to craft an intention statement, the other people can see themselves in, the amount of buying goes up and the amount of resistance goes way down in the meeting, that’s a pretty big shift. Leaders kind of pushing through a meeting or pushing through an agenda, feels very different than if you have a bunch of contributors in the room rather than consumers and critics.

(Will) It’s so often that we lose who we’re actually doing our work for. So, it’s common when you sit in a lot of meetings with upper leaders, and the word student never shows up in the room. So, a powerful intense statement might have the following three words on the end: in order to or so that and then it includes those needs of the student. So, now the students, thoughts, ideas and ideals, and positive uplifting emotions can also show up.

(Chad) Will, let me extend that one step further to, into an example. Imagine, I think lots of the world has some sort of recurring meeting. So, on Monday, we meet, we report out, we kind of check in on what’s going on, it’s a standing meeting. Think about the difference between that where you just do as you do, right? And everybody goes around and reports out, versus the meeting that starts with, hey, we’re going to report out and the intention of this is to all share information, so that your jobs are a little bit easier when you walk out of this room, so that you learn information that helps your jobs and your life be a little bit better when you leave this room, right? That’s a bit of a stock intention, but that’s very different than how fast can we get around the room, so that we can get out of here. I think that’s the benefit for all.

(Will) And to take your idea one step further, Chad, if you wanted collaboration to show up, you could say in order to, so we’re going to do this report out. And then add at the end of it, in order to we can all listen for ways that we can be helpful to each other, so that the students can have the greatest success, right? People are there because they want to have student success, they want to be there to be helpful to each other, but oftentimes they’re not given permission to do that, or they feel burdened with the toxic stress that they’re swimming in. When you get a really clear intent, some of that stress gets left behind.

Q: Going back to the pyramid, which you frame very comprehensively, way up at the top of the pyramid is empathy. When you talk about empathy, you also reference apathy and sympathy. What I’d love to understand from you is if you could provide an example, sort of an anecdote of maybe a workplace scenario that explains each of those approaches. So, in other words, if a colleague is responding to another co-worker, or approaching another co-worker. Is there a way you could kind of show us what those three ideas look and sound like, the empathy, which is part of the pyramid, but then the apathy and sympathy that you also referenced, is there a way to kind of show us that?

A: (Chad) I can start with a personal story about my wife, Kate, who’s a school nurse. So, she’s the person that when your kid has a belly ache, they end up down with Kate, or a bee sting, or fill in the blank. Where we used to live in North Carolina, now live in Pittsburgh, but where we used to live in North Carolina, the school nurse was more of a trainer of teachers, because teachers ended up as the ones who were giving diabetic care management and all sorts of things that teachers weren’t trained to do. However, Kate has a deep level of compassion and care as a lot of nurses do.

So, there would be, in the first few years of her career, Kate would come home exhausted, she would come home just tapped. And I would say in the way that we use language in the book is that, she’s sympathizing so much, she was stepping fully into what everybody else was going on. And as any educator or parent knows, there’s some intense stuff they talk about at school like, not all kids have rosy homes and backgrounds. So, the idea for Kate of seeing signs of abuse and then sending that kid home because there wasn’t a great quick alternative, she would come home and that would be on her shoulders and that is sympathy, right? It’s having both feet fully and you’re swimming in the pond, so to speak with that person. And it’s a lot harder to be of service, especially sustainable service when you’re in that place.

And at some point, I don’t know when it was, I don’t know which student, which parent, which interaction shifted this, but at some point, Kate was able to make this shift from sympathy to empathy, where she was able to put one of her feet in her students, her parents, her families, and her educators shoes, and keep one of her feet grounded in her own reality. Now she’s able to be of immense service, and she also came home with a whole different energy when that happened and I think that shift.

Now, Kate is not an apathetic person almost ever, so maybe Will, if you have some ways to bring out apathy, but there’s the nuance between sympathy and empathy, which I think is a nuance that we’ve added in the book that’s not here. If you look up, if you consult Merriam Webster, it’s not going to say all that, right? But I think the distinction has the potential to either continue on a path of burnt out or energized and still have service, that’s a pretty big difference, so something worth pondering for yourself.

(Will) So, to continue with the nurse analogy, I used to be a principal in non-traditional school, and I would hire lots of different nurses. And the nurses that were empathetic, would say things like, suck it up, kid, right? They would not even meet the kid, where the pain was.

The nurse was apathetic, right? So, the kid shows up with an injury and the nurse just says, suck it up, kid, I don’t have time for you and just turn them away. Or give them a bandaid and say, suck it up kid, right? So, they did their duty, but not in such a way that the kid was seen, right? So, when we’re being apathetic, what we’re doing is just looking for the facts. Oh, kid fell down, he tore his knee, needs a bandaid. If we are being sympathetic, we in that moment to have fallen so far into the emotional turmoil, the emotional pond, I’m going to call it, that we’re experiencing the same motions that they are, and we are lost with whatever the reality is on a bigger scale, we are swimming in their drama, their emotional place.

When we’re being empathetic, we can see what it’s like for them, we can see them, we can be present with them, and we are reminded of the time in which we experienced such pain. But we also know that we got one foot rooted in a place where we can be helpful, where we can offer a listening ear without drowning in the emotional drama that they are now in. If you use a pond analogy, if we’re all in upstate New York, and that you cross the frozen pond and you fall in and I just stand there and say, oh, she fell in, and I do nothing, I’m just naming the facts, right? So oftentimes we think of police officers, right? They might say, just tell me the facts, or a lawyer who might say, just answer the question, right? Very fact focus with those details.

Whereas if you fall in the lake, fall through the ice, and now I come to help you and I fall in, I’m experiencing the same coldness that you are experiencing. And I am short of breath, just like you are short of breath. I feel the cold, just like you feel the cold, but I can’t help you out. I can’t help you get out of the ice because I’m drowning just like you are. But if I come to the edge of the ice, throw you a rope and help you and encourage you to climb yourself out, then I’m rooted in what I know to be true. And I see that your coldness is disturbing, but not so much that I am disturbed to the point of losing my ability to be able to be a resource for you.

Q: And that’s really applicable across any scenario in work or life, is that accurate you would say?

A: (Will) Yes. We parent better when we can be empathetic. I don’t parent really well when I get apathetic. I don’t parent very well when I get sympathetic and I just get drowned in it, so yes. And as a CEO, as a principal, as a superintendent, as a teacher, when I did my best teaching, when I was on the front lines and teaching grade school every day, there was a way that my co-teachers who were really rocking it were the ones that were like, “Oh, Joey, that must really hurt. What are you going to do to get yourself out of that?” Right. And they would immediately start asking questions, met them where they were and then immediately started asking them questions so that they could pull themselves out of that emotional drama that used to feed them, right?

There are some students who actually create that emotional drama because that’s the way that they get emotionally fed, right? They get energetically fed, but really good teachers, parents and leaders have the ability to ask questions that help people pull themselves out of that tightness.

(Chad) One more quick thing to call out there, is I think in working with schools and educators, your school leaders or even anybody in the school could point out and potentially even name, you not want to, but potentially even name, the people who are sort of resigned and apathetic at this point. I can’t 100% guarantee, but I bet that none of those people who are apathetic now started out that way in their first few weeks of teaching. I bet that when they decided to become a teacher, when they decided to become a principal, and they started becoming a superintendent, they were not in the place of disconnected apathy and that resignation of like, why am I even going to lend my voice or fill out this survey, it’s not going to make a difference, right? That place of disconnection in apathy.

I think one of the paths that we get to that apathy from, is from overdosing on sympathy, right? From being so invested. And then we’re so invested because we want to create this change, and the change doesn’t happen in the exact way that we expect it to or want it to. And so eventually, week after week, year after year, we get burnout, and we give up and we enter this place of apathy and we stay there, and all the students that enter our sphere now, didn’t get the attempt at us. And I think the pathway out of that is, like we’ve been saying, empathy, the ability to keep one foot in their reality and one foot in your own. There are other sources and paths to apathy and that resignation, but I would say in the context of language we’re speaking now, that’s one of them.

Q: But what you’re saying is that there is a way out of it. Once you reach that apathy point, there’s a way out of it, you can step back out of it?

A: (Chad) Yeah. Absolutely.

(Will) Yeah. So, I just want to add to that. Oftentimes if people are being apathetic in the workplace, they’re often in a place of resignation. So, as Chad was alluding to, at one point they might have been sympathetic, but then wasn’t seen, heard and understood, they didn’t have a voice, they didn’t feel their choices mattered. So one way to get out of that, especially as a leader, if you see apathetic people is to really have a clear conversation with them about who they are and how they want to contribute for them to actually be seen and that’s where the blessing of empathy comes in. Because empathy, allows people to be seen, heard and understood, exactly for the who they are, and for who they are not. And when that happens, people are more likely to contribute, more likely to give their voice, more likely to choose to contribute rather than to be a consumer, or critic, or say a curmudgeon.

(Chad) I think part of the reason that Will and I wanted to join you to record this podcast is, imagine schools that were sprinkled with the dose of empathy where superintendents deeply understood teachers and teachers deeply understood superintendents and they were able to say, rather than being frustrated at each other, they were able to stick one foot in and say like, wow, your job must be really, really hard. I’m still really frustrated, this thing isn’t getting done, and we still have to deliver this curriculum, and what is this blended hybrid, or whatever’s going on, especially currently in the world. But to be able to sprinkle that dose to recognize that, I have never met an educator that hasn’t said, to some degree, I have too much to do in too little time.

I think sometimes we forget that and we get frustrated at somebody for not doing something, and that person also feels they have too much to do in too little time and they know they’re dropping the ball for some people. And when we’re apathetic, it’s really easy to turn that person into an object, whereas when we’re empathetic, we can work with them and there can be some collaboration in getting that done, rather than a finger pointing out of a blame.

Q: Decision making is part of all organizations, big or small, all boards, all school boards, school administration, corporations, decision making occurs all the time. Typically, decision making, if it’s being done across any number of people include some dialog, especially if you might be referencing a leadership team, or school board, or a corporate board. So, what I want to ask you to define or share the difference between is debate and discussion. So, if part of decision making includes discussion, is there a difference between debating and discussion? And if so, what’s the difference?

A: (Will) I so appreciate that. Let’s get clear about debate, who’s going to win, right? And oftentimes, debate shows up when we are in a place in which you’re going to lose and I’m going to win, and that is the mindset that shows up usually when something is threatened, right? My identity, or my needs are getting threatened. So, debate often has this two-sided argument where people are trying to prove and they’re only listening to win and they’re trying to challenge each other. This discussion or the word I like to use is dialogue.

Chad Littlefield, M.Ed.Chad Littlefield

As a speaker and professional facilitator, Chad designs fun, challenging, and engaging experiences and tools that break down communication barriers. He has spoken at TEDx and is the author of the Pocket Guide to Facilitating Human Connections. He is also the creator of We! Connect Cards™, which are now being used to create conversations that matter within companies in over 80 countries around the world and on 6 of the 7 continents. (Free deck if you live in Antarctica.) Chad lives in Pittsburgh, PA with his wonderful wife and son, Kate and Otto, though they all travel often. View Chad’s full bio here.

Will Wise, M.Ed.

Will Wise

Will Wise has over two decades of experience custom building leadership programs for corporate and nonprofit groups. He has earned a reputation as one who can transform groups and people into their best selves. Tens of thousands of people have been empowered with positive communication skills after spending some time with Will and We and Me, Inc. Most recently, Will released his new book, Ask Powerful Questions: Create Conversations that Matter, now a #1 Amazon Bestseller! Will lives in State College, PA with his amazing wife, Heather, and their three children. View Will’s full bio here.