How Empathy Can Be Your Secret Weapon

Greg Satell
6 min readJun 3
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

When I first moved to Kyiv about 20 years ago, I met my friend Pavlo, who is from Belarus. Eventually our talk turned to that country’s leader, Alexander Lukashenko, and an incident in which he turned off the utilities at the US Ambassador’s residence, as well as those of other diplomats. It seemed totally outlandish and crazy to me.

“But he won,” Pavlo countered. I was incredulous, until he explained. “Lukashenko knows he’s a bastard and that the world will never accept him. In that situation all you can win is your freedom and that’s what he won.” It was a mode of thinking so outrageous and foreign to me that I could scarcely believe it.

Yet it opened my eyes and made me a more effective operator. We tend to think of empathy as an act of generosity, but it’s far more than that. Learning how to internalize diverse viewpoints is a skill we should learn not only because it helps make others more comfortable, but because it empowers us to successfully navigate an often complex and difficult world.

Identifying Shared Values

We all have ideas we feel passionately about and, naturally, we want others to adopt them. The ideas we believe in make up an important facet of our identity, dignity and sense of self. For me, as an American living in post-communist countries, the ideas embedded in democratic institutions were important and it was difficult for me to see things another way.

My conversation with Pavlo opened my eyes. Where I saw America and “the west” as a more just society, people in other parts of the world saw it as a dominant force that restricted their freedom. My big insight was that I didn’t need to agree with a perspective to understand, internalize, and leverage it as a shared value.

For example, once I was able to understand that some people saw Americans as powerful — something akin to an invading force — I was able to shed the feelings of vulnerability that arose from being in a strange and foreign land and focus on the shared value of safety in my dealings with others.

A great strategy for identifying shared values is to listen closely to what your opposition is saying. People say and do things because they believe they will be effective. Once I was able to stop dismissing…

Greg Satell

Co-Founder: ChangeOS | Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Wharton Lecturer,@HBR Contributor, - Learn more at