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Barbara Walters’ weapon: empathy

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in Leaders & Managers

At the center of all the advice to stop talking and start listening stands a premier example: Barbara Walters. 

The interviewer’s list of “gets” is a mile long and her genius has been to show her subjects she cares about them. She never engages in a battle of wits, never tries to win an argument and does not interrupt.

The result is information no one has.

Part of this comes from empathy and part of it from understanding ego. Walters often primes successful people by asking, “What is the first job you ever held?”

She’ll ask, “What is the biggest misconception about you?” and nod as though the truth were finally being revealed and the matter settled.

Of course, she asked Richard Nixon about Vietnam, but most illuminating was his answer to her query about why people thought he was stuffy. He worked himself up over it, showing that he wasn’t so much stuffy as angry.

Empathy is the coin of Walters’ realm. When guests on her show raged about singer Michael Jackson, then on trial for child molestation, she looked into the camera kindly, as if speaking to him, and said, “If I ever had the chance to talk to Michael, I would say to him, ‘Michael, what is your side of the story?’ ”

It’s an approach every leader could use a little more.

— Adapted from “The Uses of Enchantment,” Caitlin Flanagan, The Atlantic.

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