To Stop a Runaway Horse You Have To Catch Up To It First

The 2015 movie Inside Out is the story of Riley, a boisterous 11-year-old girl, or more specifically, the inner emotions of her brain, respectively portrayed by a cast of animated characters.  The emotion Joy has appointed herself as the leader of all the other emotions presuming that her positive outlook and upbeat energy must outperform all other negative emotions if Riley is to get through her pre-pubescent crises.  But when Bing Bong, Riley’s made-up friend, loses his favorite toys and cannot be consoled by Joy, despite her most frantic efforts, it is the emotion Sadness that wins the day.  How does Sadness do it?  By sitting down with Bing Bong, listening to him, hearing him out, reflecting back to him his emotions, and then being the shoulder to cry on when Bing Bong finally accepts his loss.  Later, Joy asks Sadness, “how did you do it?”  Sadness says, “I don’t know, he was sad.  So I listened.”  And because she did, Bing Bong was able to move through his emotions and face reality.  Sadness did what Joy could not.

It is a powerful animated metaphor for empathy and its role in healing.

But empathy is risky, and every organization sizable enough to be wary of public opinion knows it.  Empathy requires vulnerability and vulnerability implies weakness and when the public has an axe to grind, weakness makes an excellent anvil upon which to do so.  An upset public gropes for a scapegoat.  Empathy becomes a liability when fingers are pointing.

Which is too bad because, as the movie Inside Out demonstrates, empathy can actually be the most efficient way forward, if – and it’s a big ‘if’ – an organization can survive appearing weak for a hot second.

I doubt I’m the only one who has sat in a crowded airport terminal watching the minutes tick away as the departure time nears, arrives, then fades into the past still with no sign of boarding, and an airline agent stands behind the counter, eyes glued to his computer screen, eyebrows furrowed, face stern, fingers furiously typing away at who knows what, while awaiting passengers get angrier and angrier.   We all know why the agent doesn’t make an announcement: because there’s no good announcement to make.  The reality is that the wait will be even longer, the logistics more complicated, and the excuse lamer than passengers currently believe.   Any announcement will reflect poorly on the airline so no announcement is made.  And there it stands until the least patient passenger blows their top.  All it would take is for the airline agent to pick up the microphone and calmly say, “I’m sorry, folks.  This flight will be delayed.  Really delayed.  And there’s no way around it.  Please make plans accordingly.”  Then everyone could begin to do what they needed to do to adjust to reality.

But airline flight delays are relatively trivial compared to the civic organizations, school systems, municipalities, lobbying groups, businesses, and government entities who go mum to the community’s detriment.  Giving minimal or no information is a cowardly way of hoping ire and angst will move on to the next potential target.  It is disheartening to be in a room full of entities making ‘CYA’ moves when honesty would actually move the needle.  Yes, honesty can hurt; but usually time redeems the institution that demonstrates that it can learn from its mistakes.

Empathy is not a concession.  It’s productive.  It gets the job done.  In many cases, it is far more efficient than stubborn bravado.

See for yourself: the next time someone is angry at you, resist the urge to push back.  Listen.  Understand.  Validate.  Even if you have to restate their case for them, make sure they know that you know how they feel.  See how it goes.  See if things don’t resolve a whole lot quicker.

Empathy works.


  1. Marianne Gordon says

    I recommend this book: Grace In The Gray by Mike Donehey

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