The Functional and Empathic Voices: The Battle in My Head

by Nicole Chen
I discovered this semester that a two-headed monster lives within me. I always thought that only one did – the one that has pushed me to become a great executer and project manager, and has led me to relative success in my career. After all, I studied at a prestigious private university, worked at a now successful startup right out of school, lived overseas for several years and managed projects with high-profile clients. But a second one is starting to make itself heard, and seems to be increasing in volume lately.
The first voice is the one that says to me, “Ok, so what do I need to do today? We’ve got two weeks left before the due date, so let’s set an agenda, outline the goals, and end each meeting with clear next steps. Let’s make it happen!” This voice is quite loud and in a constant state of activity and brain whirl. This new emerging voice, however, is a little softer, more and is constantly trying to interject among the business of the first. It says to me, “Let’s sit back, take a breath and feel. Stop and look around. Does everyone in the team seem engaged and vested into this project? Are we all happy?” But then the first voice pipes back up and says, “Hey, back to work! We’ve got to get this done!” So back and forth the two voices went.

The voices didn’t quiet until the end of the project. When the next stage of the creative process settled in, what I call the creative hangover, my insecurities began to bubble to the surface, suppressed during the project by the pressure to execute. I began to question myself, wondering, “As a team we did a great job, but as an individual, how did I do? Did we all learn what we wanted to learn, or did I learn my lessons at the expense of others? Was I a good teammate and would my teammates choose to work with me again? And if they would, is it only because of my performance and what I did, or is it also about how I did it and, perhaps most importantly, who I am?”
There’s no question that these concerns are the work of that second emerging voice – the empathic voice. And there’s no doubt that the first voice, the functional voice, clearly dominates the corporate and academic environment. Most communication courses at traditional business schools or executive programs frame communication skills around how to effectively express ideas, give a compelling presentation, or communicate with your employees in order to motivate them to deliver for you.
The empathic voice, however, the one that focuses on personal listening, is sorely neglected, as I’ve discovered. Who wants to talk about feelings, and liking each other as people, and all that mushy stuff in the corporate environment? But this focus on delivery is unhealthy and unbalanced. If our identities become wrapped up in executables at the expense of building a positive team dynamic, creativity is at risk, and nearly impossible to coax it back once lost. The creative process depends inputs from various perspectives, and keeping a team together is crucial for successful problem-solving and innovation.
Recognizing that this battle even exists within me has been a huge learning for me in this Live Exchange course. My functional voice is well developed, and my challenge now is to draw out the empathic voice and see how that can drive me to another type of success – one that makes me a stronger leader, rather than simply a better project manager. Wish me luck.

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.

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