Have Empathy Like Eleanor (and be Perceptive like Princess Diana)

My next examples of negotiation skills come straight from the pandemic–and by that I mean watching television for hours during the pandemic!   Again, let me note that these are examples, not of negotiation per se, but rather examples of women in action showing the skills that we need for negotiation.  And, as we teach negotiation, these are the examples we can use to demonstrate what effectiveness looks like.

Last fall, CNN was running a series on the First Ladies (totally worth the time–very well done).  They were all quite interesting but the thing that really stood out for me was the episode on Eleanor Roosevelt.  One could write volumes about how Eleanor Roosevelt should be a role model–her volunteer work with immigrants, her work with the Red Cross, the fact that when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let Marion Anderson perform in Constitution Hall, Eleanor both resigned the organization and arranged for the concert to be at the Lincoln Memorial, or–another one of my favorite stories–when the White House press corps would not admit women, she, as First Lady, instituted press conferences only for women so that each major news organization would have to hire a woman in order to cover her.  And this is not even diving into her later work at the United Nations and in negotiating the Declaration of Human Rights.  She was incredible.

But today’s story is one of empathy.  What I hadn’t learned growing up (or at least did not focus on) is that she became the eyes and ears of FDR for the country.  She regularly toured around the country throughout his presidency to report on what the situation was and how the Depression was impacting the population.  She was a journalist, columnist and radio show host throughout the 1930’s.  And she was perceived as having such empathy, that citizens wrote to her by the thousands telling her about their lives, struggles, and challenges.  In her first year as First Lady, she received (and responded to) 300,000 letters!  It was, in fact, her empathy in action–to the poor, to the downtrodden, and to minorities–for which she was beloved among the U.S. citizenry.  As a profile in the Washington Post put it,

Roosevelt’s process started with empathy for the individual. Being with people fueled her activism. “My interest or sympathy or indignation is not aroused by an abstract cause but by the plight of a single person whom I have seen with my own eyes,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Out of my response to an individual develops an awareness of a problem.”

This empathy and knowledge of others gave her a seat at the table when it came time to create and implement policy.  Because she had the direct line to what was actually happening on the ground (before widespread polling and lobbying existed), she had influence.

This adulation and belief that a leader had real empathy was mirrored in Princess Diana’s experience as well.  Of course, I lived during Princess Diana’s life and vividly recall both her wedding and the awfulness of her death.  And yet, this past few months, re-watching this all through The Crown on Netflix has reminded us all about her remarkable popularity and public adoration.  (The Golden Globes also apparently loved The Crown. )   Yes, she was beautiful and had great clothes but it was her actions that gave the UK  the “People’s Princess.”  She was known for visiting children in the hospital and not wearing hats (contrary to protocol) in order to get closer to them.  She wrote handwritten thank you notes by the thousands to anyone who gave her a gift.  And, perhaps most well-known, she was willing to shake hands and hug those who were dying of AIDS.  As she said at the time, “HIV does not make people dangerous to know.  You can shake their hands and give them a hug.  Heaven knows they need it.”  She also later traveled to leprosy hospitals to convey the same message–that these diseases cannot be passed on by touch.  One could argue that her public persona was manufactured (by her and by her fans) and that it was helped by the contrast with the royal family who were far more formal and withdrawn.  Nonetheless, that ability to be seen as someone who cares for others is the key skill here to highlight.  And with that perception, Diana was far more influential than she would have been otherwise.

Okay–here are my examples of empathy in action.  What do you think?  And who else would you include as role models on this list?  Thanks much!

2 thoughts on “Have Empathy Like Eleanor (and be Perceptive like Princess Diana)”

  1. I’m excited to see what Jill Biden does as First Lady. I’m hoping she will be another role model for empathy.

  2. My mother was a student at a women’s college when Eleanor Roosevelt visited campus during WWII. She had a special meeting after lunch with the women who had worked as waitresses for the event. My mother remembered her conversing with each person individually about what they were doing for the war effort (lots of knitting socks for soldiers!). She said that she had an inner beauty that never showed in her photographs. It must have been that empathy!

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