A teenage girl had just taken up golf.  She was such a natural talent that she rose through the ranks until she made the varsity golf team at school even though she was only a freshman.

One afternoon, she called her mom at work, frantic.  “Mom, I just found out that I have to wear soft spikes a the tournament tomorrow.  SOFT SPIKES! Mom.  I only have hard spikes.  They’re not going to let me play in hard spikes, Mom.  What am I going to do?” she wailed.

“You know, honey, we’re the same size and I have two pair of soft spikes.  You can just borrow mine.”

“Oh, Mom, that’s not going to work.  THAT WON’T WORK.  I can’t play in your shoes.”

This just didn’t make sense; both the out of proportion emotional reaction, and the dismissal of the very reasonable solution.  There was something more going on than a dire need for soft-spiked golf shoes. 

Mom backtracked and tried again.  “Honey, you sound really agitated.”

Bursting into tears, she cried, “Mom, it’s my first eighteen-hole tournament ever.  I’m so scared!” 

The frantic phone call became clear.  She was using the golf shoes as the impetus to talk to her mom about how she was feeling.  Problem solving wasn’t called for; listening was… 

She wore her mom’s shoes, and she did great in the tournament.

— Stephen R. Covey, Living the 7 Habits:  Stories of Courage and Inspiration.  Copyright 1999 by Franklin Covey Co.

This conversation could have been very different.

THAT WON’T WORK.  I can’t play in your shoes.”

“That’s silly, honey; of course you can!”

“No I can’t!  They’re your shoes!”

“What difference will that make?  They won’t affect your play…”


And from there, perhaps with an abrupt disconnection, the brief emotion-laden conversation could very well escalate and cause damage to the mother-daughter relationship.

But it didn’t escalate.  It didn’t, because mom was skilled; she was able to do two remarkable things in the heat of the moment.

First, she heard not only the words of her daughter; she heard the emotion.  She sensed that there was something else going on.  She realized that this was not about the shoes.

Second, she nailed the response that followed up her realization.

Honey, you sound really agitated.

Please notice that she didn’t ask her daughter what was going on.  She didn’t express confusion with the emotional (and irrational) response to the solution she presented.

She didn’t judge nor analyze.  It was not the time to even suggest she think things through.  Being rational with someone who is momentarily irrational is not a winning strategy.

Instead, she simply described the emotion.

Honey, you sound really agitated.

This is deceptively simple.  Which is why it’s skillful …

Empathy is like a release valve, allowing the steam to escape, revealing the problem within.

It wasn’t about the soft-spiked shoes.

It never is.