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Be nice. No, be even nicer. And really mean it.*


I meet a lot of people every year.

I also train hundreds of people to become grassroots community advocates every year.

Meeting people is kind of my wheelhouse. Getting people to connect empathetically with others is also kind of my wheelhouse.

I recently read and enjoyed this Atlantic piece, based on a more colorful and NSFW essay by the excellent Paul Ford on Medium. The Atlantic piece focuses on a specific trick of politeness and conversation from Ford’s essay. Everyone can use it–it’s just four words–

“Wow, that sounds hard.”

As in, we’ve just met, I ask what you do, and *no matter what you say*, I reply, “Wow, that sounds hard.”

Tinker, tailor, candlestick maker? Doesn’t matter. “Wow, that sounds hard.”

I have two reactions to this, one personal and one professional. I’ll start with the personal reaction:

Darn, he’s telling everyone my trick.

Acknowledging that the path each person walks has its own *real and perceived* difficulty is a key to connecting with anyone, stranger or friend. I’m telling you, use it, and see the magic of empathy work in every conversation.

Professionally, I have a separate reaction:

I need to double down on empathy in my trainings.

I’m a likeable person. My mother taught me about that listening is important, and people who listen are better at making connections. I listen, therefore you are able to tell me about yourself (or who you feel yourself to be in that moment, which is okay, too) and then, when you feel me listening, you feel connected to me. Feeling connected is so nice. Listening makes that connection possible.

I like listening. I like being likeable. I sometimes wonder if my work training people is just as much about me listening to what they feel–so passionately–needs to be heard, as it is about the tools I give in my workshops. “I hear you!” I am saying, silently, with my friendly smile and my good eye contact. “You are important!” I am saying, silently, with a look of concentration and my lean into our conversation. “This moment matters!” I telegraph, with my lifted eyebrow and my hand on your shoulder.

Connection. Listening. Empathy.

I recently held a staff training where people talked about their roles in a large company. Hearing them put their own words about their challenges, achievements, and struggles was so enlightening. Many times, what I heard between their words and their smiles and their nerves at the microphone was:

“Wow, my work is hard. See? What I do is hard!”

Yes, what you do is hard. In the field that I work in, particularly, this field of liminal spaces between last breaths and first breaths, waiting breaths and hoping breaths, the between-times of life and death,  transplantation and donation, yes, yes, work is hard.

Wow, that sounds hard.

Professionally, I’m going to use Ford’s tip as a part of my next training. I’ll tell the good people I train: the best connectors, the people who make the biggest difference in this world, they seek to listen to others as much as they speak. If you connect in empathy, you can lean into that connection to then persuade people to commit to a donation decision that will save lives.

Personally, the next time I see you, and we meet, and we talk about what you do, I’ll say “Wow, that sounds hard.” And I’ll mean it.

*Something I have said to my 7 year old many times.

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