Consulting: The Circle Of Empathy

empWhile reading Jaron Lanier’s fascinating book named You Are Not a Gadget, he speaks of a very interesting concept that I think resonates with all of us. This concept, the Circle of Empathy posits that we all have a circle of people, places, and things that are most important to us – and everything outside of that can die without us worrying too much. The question is, from day to day, what fits inside of this circle and what should be placed outside of it? That’s a tougher questions to answer than you might think – everyone is different in how they would answer. When related to Consulting, the idea of a empathy circle has to be inflated for you to succeed.

Jaron describes this circle in a very anti-digital way:

“An imaginary circle of empathy is drawn by each person. It circumscribes the person at some distance, and corresponds to those things in the world that deserve empathy. I like the term “empathy” because it has spiritual overtones. A term like “sympathy” or “allegiance” might be more precise, but I want the chosen term to be slightly mystical, to suggest that we might not be able to fully understand what goes on between us and others, that we should leave open the possibility that the relationship can’t be represented in a digital database.”

And this is very skewed. When the people closest to us are part of our empathy circle, they are there by design. They know you care about them by way of your actions and even the intention in your actions. When the consultant has a good, loyal customer – the customer must know that the needs they have are being taken care of. In essence, the customer also expects to be part of the consultant’s empathy circle. This isn’t so hard for the consultant with one customer, but what if you had 30? 50? 100?

This scale is what I think causes the challenge for consultants. When the customer’s needs are tended to so often, the consultant will place his/her needs in the background. Expand that by a larger number and what might happen is the consultant places themselves outside of the empathy circle.

Outside? That’s right – I may not know for sure (it’s hard to say when evaluating yourself), but on many occasions I know I have placed the needs of a client over my own. Working more than 24hrs straight. Going without food for extended periods of time. Risking bad health for the sake of taking care of the client. When I’m in that zone, it seems clear that I’ve placed my needs outside of the empathy circle.

This is where the challenge (and, call to action if you will) lies. For a consulting firm to succeed they need to be able to find that delicate balance between keeping customers inside the empathy circle, but yet treating themselves (and employees) well enough that their needs are met. This appears to be a consistent battle, and one that every consultant needs to be mindful of.

The question is, are you?