The FBI had identified Nicholas (not his real name) as a Russian intelligence officer in San Francisco. The Russian government tasked Nicholas to steal classified technology. My job was to either recruit him to work for the FBI or gather enough evidence to have him declared persona non grata and thrown out of the country.
FBI agents, like I once was, try to recruit foreign intelligence officers rather than have them deported because their cooperation can help us pinpoint exactly what their intelligence service (in this case, Russia) wants to steal. So you can imagine how pumped I got when I learned from the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit that empathy skills help a person read the mind of others, which came in mighty handy with a job like mine.
I dug out my fake ID and went undercover to a conference I knew Nicholas planned to attend. A fast and strategic maneuver on my part placed me in the empty chair next to him. We started a conversation, and I learned Nicholas drew cartoons and sent them home to his 6-year-old son, who remained in Moscow.
Tapping knowledge for empathy
Empathy worked two ways for me. First, it helped me understand Nicholas’ thoughts and point of view. It allowed me to ask myself, “What would I think and feel if I were him right now?”
Second, it let me express my concern and inquire about his worries. As I listened to Nicholas respond to my questions, I better understood the stress he felt at work and the added stress of being separated from his son.
Why you need empathy even if you’re not a spy
Leaders need to cultivate empathy skills today because I needed empathy to recruit Nicholas — people are experiencing multiple kinds of stress, whether from the pandemic, the economy, or America’s divided political landscape.
A recent study revealed that 65.9% of people report higher stress levels, and 57.2% report higher anxiety levels since the COVID-19 outbreak. Here are the areas of most concern:
- COVID-19 and related health issues.
- Financial pressure.
- Being stuck at home.
- Loneliness/social isolation.