Where are my socks? – Empathy in Feedback with Positive Intelligence

socks empathy

“Do you know where my socks are?” People can be confusing bundles of emotions, which are all bound up in buttons, triggers, and landmines. It’s hard to know when something said with the best intentions might backfire, particularly when offering feedback or advice. Does that mean we just shouldn’t say anything? Receiving honest feedback with empathy from others can be a powerful reflection that enables us to grow.

Positive IntelligencePositive Intelligence Empathy

I recently read the book “Positive Intelligence” by Shirzad Chamine. I first learned about Chamine’s work from Joe Woodard in one of his Woodard Institute courses for accounting professionals. Chamine does an amazing job educating us about how much our minds can work against us instead of in favor of our intentions and well-being. He calls the nasty voices in the backs of our heads “saboteurs,” and there are many personas that these cunning tricksters can use to sneak into our rational thoughts.

The saboteurs are led by the Judge: the inner voice that picks apart everyone around us, ourselves, and our circumstances. The other saboteurs serve as accomplices to the Judge. They can include the Pleaser, the Avoider, the Victim, the Stickler, and several others. These voices keep us from truly connecting with others, as we get caught up in our own inner dialogue rather than truly connecting through empathy.

When we quiet these voices and focus on connecting with ourselves, others, and our surroundings, it is much easier to keep a positive outlook. When we have a positive outlook, we are more open to possible solutions to even the most challenging situations.

Happiness at Home

My husband and I don’t fight like we used to. Sure, Jeff and I still disagree fairly often, but those discussions are much more productive then they used to be. When we argue now, it generally turns into a fantastic conversation of discovery, about ourselves and each other. Though parts of the discussion may have been challenging, we both end up feeling that we are better for the experience.

I showed Jeff the Positive Intelligence website when I first learned about it, before I read the book. He dove in head first, and he loved Chamine’s ideas. Jeff found the system fascinating, as there was finally a way to explain why his own mind was cutting him down so often. He was thrilled that Chamine had tools to offer him that would help him shift his way of thinking to be more effective and positive.

Jeff made a focused effort to identify and quiet his saboteurs, and the difference in him was palpable within weeks. When I also read the book, it gave us a common language by which we could identify the triggers that might upset us, going deeper to find the real root of the issue. It all starts with having empathy for the other person, with a genuine desire to connect on our common interests.

What is Empathy?

Google defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” While they are often considered synonyms, empathy is different from sympathy, which is “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” Empathy is what people are referring to when they suggest that we walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. By picturing ourselves in the position of someone else and trying to see from their point of view, we can connect from common experience.

Empathy is very important in all kinds of relationships, whether those relationships be family, friends, co-workers, or neighbors. We all want to be heard and understood. We have a deep, hard-wired need for connection with other people. However, oftentimes it can be a struggle to really understand ourselves and our own motivations. How can be possibly think we can understand any one else?

By giving and receiving reflection with others, we also learn about ourselves. By knowing ourselves, our wants and needs, and our strengths, we can achieve great things.


A few weeks ago, Jeff and I were having a discussion. We had gotten through the initial trigger issue, and we were working together to explore what deeper roots this issue may have in each of us. As we were talking, I noticed that the conversation kept going off on tangents any time we approached a certain topic. While Jeff was genuinely interested in exploration, growth, and finding the core issues, his subconscious was leading us on a merry chase.

Enter my saboteurs. I suddenly got lost in a wash of self doubts. By noticing this pattern, was I judging him? I didn’t think so, as I didn’t have any negative or accusatory emotions tied to the observation. Nonetheless, I could tell that this was a sensitive topic where he might judge himself. We had been having such a great conversation, and if I challenged his saboteurs it might ruin it. Translation: My Avoider and my Pleaser were having a hay-day!

I needed to find a way, for now and for the future, to make this common exchange of information easier.

socks empathyThose Darn Socks

Rather than approaching the topic directly, I started with a hypothetical situation.

Say that someone close to you can’t find their socks. They are looking everywhere, and they are frustrated. Lo and behold, you find the socks in a corner. Of course, you help out by saying, “here they are” and handing them over.

However, if those socks were feedback about an issue someone was having, it gets a little more complicated. That person may be asking for help, and you might see the location of the socks clear as day. You could help by pointing the socks out, but you risk getting blamed for a barrage of circumstances that really have nothing to do with you.

Unfortunately, many of us in that situation would rather keep the socks hidden than put ourselves between the socks and their owner. It doesn’t change the fact that the socks are NOT a judgement. They are an observation that could really help someone you care about.

By framing the discussion in a story like this, I diffused the landmine. I let Jeff know that I was struggling with my Pleaser and Avoider. That put him into a frame of mind where receiving my observation well was something that he could do to help me, rather than it just being about me trying to help him. By each letting the other give and receive empathy, we allowed the paths of connection to remain open.

Language Shortcuts

We have now created a magic “code” in our language together that sums up this situation, making it so that we do not need all of the explanation each time we encounter it. We simply say, “I found some socks.” That is our way of letting the other know that we have stumbled across an observation that may be helpful to the other.

When I went back to the office the next day, I told Vanessa, my business partner, about the discovery. Now Vanessa and I have added Socks to our fun and ridiculous office lexicon. We are working to actively create an environment where we learn and grow together through positive connection and feedback.

Flagging for the Future

There are more great strategies in the next article. To discover how to work with the issue tangents, go on to read about Bookmarking.

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