UR tackles corporate compassion

Visiting professor Fred Talbott teaches a course entitled The Empathy Project at UR. (Jonathan Spiers)

Visiting professor Fred Talbott teaches a course entitled The Empathy Project at UR. (Jonathan Spiers)

A new approach to teaching business and leadership communications is turning heads at the University of Richmond.

The Robins School of Business introduced a course this schoolyear called The Empathy Project, in which students from within and outside the business school are being taught how empathizing with others can improve interpersonal communication, and in turn such things as business transactions, interactions in the workplace and management decisions.

The course is taught by visiting lecturer Fred Talbott, a Petersburg native and retired professor who created the MBA leadership communication program at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management.

Talbott calls empathy the missing link in business and professional communication, and hence the foundation of the course that he brought to UR at the invitation of Randy Raggio, associate dean of the university’s Richard S. Reynolds Graduate School.

“We teach professional listening, professional speaking, all kinds of professional writing, engagement – the whole nine yards. But the one missing link in all business communication – heck, in all professional and interpersonal communication – is empathy,” Talbott said. “And empathy is the ability and the willingness to see the world from the point of view and the eyes of another.”

Talbott said the process of considering others’ perspectives and putting oneself in others’ shoes can help in management, sales and other business tasks and scenarios, as well as in the task required in all of those: listening.

“So many people today are so time-pressed that they often listen to respond,” Talbott said. “They don’t listen for content, they don’t listen for meaning. It’s almost as if they don’t think they have time to do that.

The course this semester focuses on local historical figures who had an impact on the world, such as Patrick Henry, Edgar Allan Poe and Maggie Walker. (Jonathan Spiers)

The course this semester focuses on local historical figures who had an impact on the world, such as Patrick Henry, Edgar Allan Poe and Maggie Walker. (Jonathan Spiers)

“Very often when we’re trying to engage and truly understand another person, we forget to literally give them enough time and ask enough questions and be considerate enough to view the world, their experience, from their point of view,” he said. “And when we do so, when we learn the ability to do that, we’re not guessing anymore.”

Talbott’s course this semester had students focus on local historical figures who had an impact on the world, such as patriot Patrick Henry, poet Edgar Allan Poe and civil rights pioneer Maggie Walker. Students were tasked with understanding their challenges and struggles by putting themselves in their shoes and writing essays from their perspectives.

Last week, students presented their findings and takeaways from the course in the last class of the semester. Topics varied from personal improvements and awareness, relatable cultural events that occurred during the semester, and lessons learned from friends and strangers whose perspectives and experiences they learned and came to appreciate.

“The more people you talk to, your world perspective does change,” said Ally Kiely, a sophomore from the Philadelphia area double-majoring in accounting and cognitive psychology.

“I feel a lot more confident speaking and going up to new people and talking to them,” she said. “Part of The Empathy Project was to go and meet new people that you see on a daily basis but don’t typically interact with, and that was a big learning experience for me in opening my perspective, as well as just feeling more comfortable talking to other people.”

The empathy approach is catching on at universities such as Georgetown, Stanford and Berkeley that have similar programs, according to UR. Talbott said the approach is catching on in the business world, as well, noting a local former student who works for consulting firm Deloitte who told him the company includes empathy as a component in its training for new consultants.

Last week’s sessions wrapped up four classes Talbott offered this semester – an MBA class and three undergrad offerings – and he’s set to offer four more classes in the spring. After that, he hopes to take The Empathy Project nationwide, as he said he’s pitching the concept to 100 universities, as well as journalism schools.

A former reporter with the Virginian-Pilot in Hampton Roads and the Orlando Sentinel in Florida, where he’s currently based, Talbott recalled the effect empathy played in one assignment in which he was tasked with telling the stories of members of a Ku Klux Klan group.

“I just let them talk, and I thought, ‘What would it be like to be these guys,’ and wrote one of the best stories I’ve ever written, because I could see the world from their point-of-view,” he said. “Every great story I was involved in, it was because of empathy, because I opened myself up to truly try to recognize the point of view of another.

“People think the word ‘sensitive’ is a weakness; it’s a strength,” Talbott said. “You see far more aware and engaged managers and leaders. It tends to prompt superb foresight – you begin recognizing how people react, how people are influenced, and that allows you to plan.”

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4 Comments on "UR tackles corporate compassion"

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wayne smith
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So many professors have never worked in the private sector, so it’s interesting to see their thoughts about what is needed in business.

Empathy from U of R? You mean, like towards those claiming to be raped?

U of R announced tuition increases for the 16/17 year. They must not empathize with students not wanting to pay more money to fund the six figure salaries of those in education.

Frederick Talbott
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Wayne, Thanks for your comment. I am a veteran of huge private sector successes–in 1998 and 1999 I helped the entire banking community of the U.S. turn the Y2K crisis into a marketing opportunity and success. As an attorney I have won defamation lawsuits. As an investigative journalist I caught and exposed an acting FBI director lying about a botched airliner hijacking rescue attempt, caught a guy who turned out to be a Soviet spy, wrote stories that changed the real estate law in the entire state of Florida to protect consumers like you, and so on. Entered what you… Read more »
Bert Hapablap
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Empathy in business? I’ve worked for several medium to large sized corporations over the last 25 years and you’d be hard pressed to find empathy, especially if the company is publicly traded. Most larger business are concerned about profits and shareholders, empathy towards employees and even customer at times is few and far between. I’m sure there is more empathy when it comes to smaller, locally owned type business although I’ve not had experience working for them. Reminds me of a story my boss tells new hires about the interns who were fired en masse for protesting the business attire… Read more »
Fred Talbott
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Bert, Those bosses and workplaces you describe prompted me to write my 2003 business humor book JJ’s Business Bullets (see it on Amazon.com) focusing on assholes. Yes, they are out there. I’ve even worked with a few. But wisely I always moved on and found better people. Fortunately, many large and even publicly traded businesses do embrace empathy. One of the finest is Southwest Airlines—it was founded on empathy, championing and celebrating employees and customers, and championing and celebrating quality service. Miserable workplaces exist, but often fail or have short-term lives before folding, bankrupting, or are bought or sold. We… Read more »
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