Are You Fluent in Feelings? Take the Empathy Quiz and Find Out

One Thai translation of empathy, a key soft power skill, is “taking the heart and wearing it,” giving a descriptive picture of stepping into the thoughts and emotions of others. This empathy intelligence quiz is step one in understanding yourself and others. 5 more practices can help you build your empathy powers.

The Soft Power Skill of Empathy

What is empathy? One Thai language translation for empathy is การเอาใจใส่, (pronounced gan ao jai sai) which can translate literally into “Taking the heart and wearing it.” It’s an illuminating picture, because empathy involves projecting out of ourselves and into the emotions and thinking of others…being able to momentarily set aside our own self and world view, and see things from another’s perspective. As the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau rhetorically wondered, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

Empathy, in Thai translation, can be interpreted as “Taking the Heart and Wearing It.” Image Source

Benefits of Empathy

Empathy is a key soft power skill, because it allows us to understand and anticipate the actions of others—when we’ve deeply considered another’s perspective, we won’t be surprised by their behavior. It also allows us to interact appropriately with others—when we distinguish between other people’s feelings of concern, or sadness, or anger, or fear, we’ll be less inclined to overreact, or misinterpret. And finally, being empathetic simply makes us more likeable, approachable, and attractive as leaders and comrades. In a business context, empathy is essential for good leadership, for being able to ask the right questions of others, for enhancing teamwork, and for effectively interacting with customers.

Is Empathy Skill Learn-able?

If empathy is so important, can we do something to get better at it? We learn empathetic behavior from early childhood, while some studies indicate there is a genetic component to empathetic behavior as well. As we gather emotional and intellectual life experiences, we develop what psychologists call a “theory of mind,” or the ability to see into the mind of others. We learn to set aside our own feelings and thoughts, to infer the mental and emotional states of others, and to react with our own appropriate emotions. But we are imperfect beings, and stepping out of our comfortable selves and into the shoes of others is easier said than done. The concept of an “emotional quotient,” or EQ, was introduced in 1990 to complement the embattled, alleged measurement of intellect known as IQ. Since then, around 3,000 scientific articles have been published regarding EQ, according to a Harvard Business Review article. From these numerous studies, it appears that our emotional quotient is not set in stone after we reach adulthood—but it’s set in pretty hard clay that takes a lot of effort to remold.

Fortunately, our emotional intelligence, which includes our ability to empathize, is not set in stone.

How to Improve Emotional Intelligence and Empathy


Know Thyself.

Step one is to understand your current ability to empathize. Below, I have gathered  pictures and videos that test your ability to understand another person’s emotions. Try your hand at guessing people’s emotions via their facial expressions, their eyes (the most important body organ for being able to capture and wear the heart of another), and their body language. If you are unsure of the intended meaning of the words in the multiple choices, scroll down to the word table at the bottom of the quiz, and simply hover over the word for its definition in the context of the quiz.

Sources for test: Greater Good Magazine, published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge. Downloadable Tests.



This face is expressing...

This face is expressing...

This face is expressing...

This face is expressing...

This face is expressing...

This face is expressing...

This face is expressing...

These eyes are expressing someone who is...

These eyes are expressing someone who is...

These eyes are expressing someone who is...

These eyes are expressing someone who is...

These eyes are expressing someone who is...

These eyes are expressing someone who is...

These eyes are expressing someone who is...

At the end of the scene, how is the woman feeling?

At the end of the scene, how is the woman feeling?

At the end of the scene, how is the woman feeling?

At the end of the scene, how is the man feeling?

At the end of the scene, how is the woman feeling?

At the end of the scene, how is the man feeling?

At the end of the scene, how is the woman feeling?

Emotions Word List
Afraid Aghast Alarmed Amused
Anger Annoyed Appealing Arrogant
Ashamed Awkward Bitter Bored
Bothered Brooding Comforting Contempt
Convinced Desire Determined Disgusted
Disliking Embarrassment Excitement Fantasizing
Fear Flirtatious Flustered Friendly
Happiness Hateful Hesitant Hurt
Impatient Insisting Interested Intimate
Irritated Jealous Joking Love
Mean Nervous Pain Panicked
Playful Politeness Pride Relaxed
Remote Resentful Sadness Sarcastic
Shame Smug Sneaky Surprise
Terrified Unsure Upset Worried

Besides the Reading the Emotions test, we can get objective feedback from peers, bosses, and people who work for us (if we are in a leadership position). We humans tend to overestimate our own abilities, especially our ability to empathize with others. Ask others how nice and how good at listening you really are…and listen carefully to their answers!


Buddy Up! Use a coach to observe and assist. The best coaches often use a technique that falls under Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. In very simple terms, this method first establishes a baseline of critical behaviors that need to be changed, by either increasing the behavior (such as empathetic listening, clear communications, etc.) or decreasing the behavior (such as inappropriately demonstrating anger, or being apathetic to people’s emotions). Then, one practices controlling thoughts and feelings to bring about the desired change through various strategies, such as using imagery, motivational self-talk, and goal setting.


It’s Elementary, Watson. Improve your powers of observation. If you’ve ever read or watched the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, you’ve seen how Sherlock constantly hones his observation skills. Practice observing conversations and social interactions, noticing the smallest details in body language and tone of voice. Scientific studies have shown that 58% of the meaning conveyed in human interaction is in the body language, and only 7% in the actual words uttered. You can also practice your powers of reading emotions on other websites—here’s a quite challenging one at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory DNA Learning Center.

Anton Chekhov

Check Out Chekhov. A study published in the journal Science in 2013 found that subjects reading character-driven literary fiction (not plot-driven pop fiction, or non-fiction) performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, such as the “reading the eyes” test. Immerse yourself in some good literature that develops its characters fully to exercise your imagination and empathetic powers. 


Don’t Be a Wallflower. Overcome fear of speaking with others. On public transportation, in a restaurant, waiting in line at the grocery, etc., strike up conversations with other people and express your curiosity about them. Get beyond small talk and find out how they feel about things and why.


Be a Mind and Soul Mirror. Practice empathetic listening (also known as reflective listening). Empathetic listening is habit number 5 of Stephen Covey’s 7 habits of highly effective people—Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. Empathetic listening involves the eyes, the ears, and the heart—watching body language, listening for tone of voice as well as the words, and trying to understand the feelings behind the words being said. Listen sincerely to understand, not just to reply. Reflective listening is not just repeating back what others say like a tape recorder; it captures the emotion behind their words and confirms understanding of the meaning and emotion. An appropriate (generalized) response after a partner has finished speaking  might be “I understand that [event, situation, problem], and that must make you feel [associated feeling]. Am I understanding correctly?”

Empathy has gotten a lot of airplay in recent times. The challenge of the electronic age, with more relationships conducted over a digital distance, has produced an even greater need for working on the skills of capturing and wearing the hearts of others. American author Daniel H. Pink, has observed, “Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.” As Pink notes, empathy as a soft power skill gives us an advantage in the increasingly automated world, as machines are unlikely to be able to wear the human heart. Though our natural tendencies are to center on our own thoughts and feelings, developing empathy powers makes our lives easier and more effective. Try the 6 practices above, and improve your fluency in feelings.

Lessons From NASA Disasters: The Soft Power of Curiosity

Curiosity comes naturally to children…but adults think they already know everything, and lose the soft power skill of being incessantly inquisitive. It may kill cats, but curiosity is essential for a highly innovative and reliable organization—a HIRO—to function well. Two heart-breaking disasters in NASA’s history demonstrate how important it is to constantly stay curious.

“My entire 6th grade science class was watching it live on television. Teachers were crying, kids were crying… it was awful. A couple of months earlier we had taken a field trip to NASA in Houston. I remember praying for the astronauts and their families. What a nightmare.”

“I was in 6th grade at Hendrick School in Plano, TX. We all wore red, white & blue that day in support of Ms. McAuliffe. We had a combined homeroom, everyone watching the launch live. And then it exploded… most of us understood what happened, but were too stunned to begin to comprehend. Our teachers just stood there in shock, and tears began to form in their eyes. The rest of the day, although we attended our regular classes, it was all anyone was talking about…. Our school was brand-new, and didn’t have a mascot…but just a few short weeks later, our mascot was the Challengers, and our t-shirts were black with a beautiful, silver space shuttle.”

These are the memories 25 years later of children affected by the US space program’s worst and most dramatic disaster—the disintegration of space shuttle Challenger. On a frigid Florida morning, the 28th of January 1986, Challenger soared into the bright blue sky, carrying a crew of seven that included the first civilian teacher chosen to go into space, Christa McAuliffe. This is the live feed that thousands of school children watched:

The Challenger Disaster

73 seconds into the flight, super-heated gas that had been escaping through a faulty seal on one of the solid rocket boosters finally burned through the booster’s bottom attachment to the large external fuel tank, causing it to pivot into and rupture the highly flammable tank. The shuttle Challenger did not actually “blow up” in an explosion at this point, but rather blew apart. Traveling on the back of the external fuel tank at nearly twice the speed of sound and 46,000 feet above the earth, the shuttle was forced sideways into the Mach 2 slipstream, experiencing forces for which it was not designed, and immediately disintegrated. The cabin with the crew remained intact, carried by momentum for another 20,000 feet upward before tumbling and plummeting back to earth. Emergency breathing gear that had been donned, as well as switches thrown in the cockpit, indicate that at least some of the crew were still conscious during the 2 minute and 45 second plunge into the ocean…but the impact at 200 times the force of gravity mercifully ended what must have been a terrifying experience.

Social Studies teacher Christa McAuliffe, with her two childen, parade in her home state of New Hampshire before the fateful flight. The hype of putting a civilian teacher into space, with many schools carrying a live feed, deepened the traumatic impact of the tragedy across the US.  Source.
The crew of STS-51-L: Front row from left, Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair. Back row from left, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judith Resnik. Source.
The space shuttle Challenger launching on its maiden voyage on April 4th, 1983. Source.

The Columbia Disaster

Seventeen years later, another seven astronauts would meet a tragic, though quicker, end. The crew of space shuttle Columbia, returning to earth after a productive two-week mission on 1 February 2003, was unaware that a piece of foam insulation from the external fuel tank had broken off and ripped a rather large hole in the leading edge of their left wing. While they chattered together in anticipation of returning home, the descending vehicle started to hit the atmosphere at over 24 times the speed of sound.  Atmospheric gasses compressed and heated up to extraordinary temperatures—as high as 1,650° C at the leading edge of the wing, which was normally protected from this onslaught by thermal tiles. But because of the puncture in the wing, these gasses, hot enough to melt the interior aluminum structure (aluminum melts at 660° C), entered like a blow torch, burning away the wing from the inside out. Though the crew couldn’t see the wing because of its rearward location, the pilot likely noticed the odd flying behavior of the craft, as the added friction on the left caused the shuttle to want to yaw and roll in unexpected ways. Shortly, some sensors measuring various systems in the left wing would give off warnings—temperatures rising, problems with tire pressures, and finally, loss of hydraulics. Mission personnel on the ground received these indications in real time, and transmitted a message to tell the pilot that they were aware of and evaluating the malfunctions; the pilot’s last transmission was, “Roger, uh, bu-,” followed by radio silence. Even if the wing was still intact at this point, the loss of hydraulic pressure meant that the craft could no longer be controlled, and it catastrophically tumbled out of control and disintegrated. The crew module may have momentarily stayed intact, but depressurization at the extreme altitude (over 200,000 feet) and high g-forces surely incapacitated the crew in a very short time. The gruesome debris trail of spacecraft and body parts scattered over two thousand square miles, from the main area of Texas, into Louisiana and Arkansas, and NASA was once again left with accounting for the loss of a USD 4 billion spacecraft, seven astronaut lives, and the public confidence in space travel.

You can listen to edited audio and various videos of the last seven minutes of Columbia’s re-entry and breakup, along with information on the tragedy, here:

The Columbia crew in orbit from film recovered from wreckage. From left (bottom row): Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Rick Husband, commander; Laurel Clark, mission specialist; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist. From left (top row) are astronauts David Brown, mission specialist; William McCool, pilot; and Michael Anderson, payload commander. 
Credit: NASA/JSC



Weighing 74,843 kg (165,000 lbs), and traveling in orbit at nearly 30 times the speed of sound (just under 8 km every second) the shuttle has tremendous kinetic energy (about 2000 Megawatts, or the power of a large city like Houston, TX) that it must dissipate when descending from orbit. The shuttle converts that energy into heat (just like a car converts energy into brake heat when it stops). Like a blowtorch, the heat penetrated into the damaged left wing as the shuttle descended over the western US, causing the interior indicators to display abnormal conditions and fail, while the heat melted the interior structure of the wing. Source.
The underside of Columbia showing a problem with the left wing and debris coming off during re-entry. The shuttle’s altitude was around 68,000 meters (about 41 miles) and speed of about 23,000 kph (14,300 mph) at 7:57 am local time. The last transmission and loss of electronic signals (indicating vehicle break-up) occurred two and half minutes after this photo was taken by  the  Air Force Research Laboratory, Kirtland Air Force Base, N. M. Source.

Video snapshots and photographs by ground observers captured the breakup over east Texas. Many people reported the multiple sonic booms as debris slowed down from its hypersonic speeds.

Radar images picked up radar reflections off of the debris trail as the disintegrated shuttle pieces descended over Texas. Source.
The debris trail spread over 3218 square kilometers (2,000 sq. miles), from Texas into Louisiana. Source.
Recovery team members stop to pray over the discovery of human remains. Source.
Debris was collected in a hangar for the accident investigation. 78,760 pieces were available for the investigation, while eventually over 84,000 pieces would be recovered. Source.

The Challenge of Lifting 4,465,000 Pounds in the Air and Technical Causes of the Accidents

Sending humans to do useful work in space is no easy task, both technically and socially. With a full payload, the shuttle, rockets, and fuel weighed 4 million 465 thousand pounds (2,025,290 kgs). Of that total, the fuel, or essentially the energy required to lift itself and send the shuttle into orbit, was twenty times heavier than the shuttle itself. Converting such massive amounts of fuel into controlled, directed energy requires highly sophisticated fuel management and rocket systems operating at tremendous pressures and temperatures. To harness the horsepower required, scientists and engineers devised a complex system of two reusable, solid-fuel “rocket boosters,” which were attached to an expendable external fuel tank. That tank acted as a structural backbone to the whole assembly, as the shuttle vehicle was also attached to it. The tank held super cooled liquid fuel which was fed into the shuttle’s three reusable rocket engines. The complexity of this 5-rocket system holds the key to the technical, proximate cause for both incidents.

The solid rocket boosters were reusable, and were inspected after each use. These pictures show the recovery process. Source.


Unlike a liquid fuel which exits its holding tank and is fed into a combustion chamber to be ignited, solid fuel burns inside its own holding tank, like a sustained fireworks rocket whose fuse has been lit. The fuel burns at 2760° C and 1,000 pounds per square inch—when directed through the rocket nozzle, this is what provides the lift to help get the shuttle off of the ground. But that temperature is also hot enough to melt metal structures, such as those attaching it to the external fuel tank, and must be contained within the booster.

A solid rocket booster burns its fuel inside the container, meaning that the container must control very high pressures and temperatures. Source.

The boosters were 150’ long and 12’ across, and manufactured thousands of miles away from the Florida launch pad in Utah. In order to transport this large structure, they were built in four main sections, each section fit together and sealed with a dual O-ring. These O-rings were designed to be shielded from high heat; however, on 14 of the 24 flights prior to the Challenger disaster, inspection of the returned boosters showed signs that they were being touched by fire or extreme heat. Extremely low temperatures for the Challenger launch caused the lower right O-ring to fail completely—smoke can be seen emanating from the conjunction of the lower segments in launch pictures—allowing those super-heated gasses to burn into the external structure.

These sections of the solid rocket booster already have the propellant fuel and are being assembled in Florida after being shipped from the manufacturer in Utah. Source.
Frigid temperatures (2.2 C / 36 F) on the morning of the Challenger launch were outside of the tested range of the O-rings, causing engineers to recommend delaying the launch. They were overruled by leaders who did not want to accept disruptive information that failed to confirm their preconceived beliefs. Source.
Liftoff copy
Smoke escaping the solid rocket booster captured on camera indicates where the O-ring failed. Source.
Flames coming from the solid rocket booster (SRB) due to the failed O-rings burned into the supporting strut connecting the SRB to the external tank. Source.
The solid rocket booster eventually burned through its attachment to the external fuel tank and caused the shuttle to turn at an angle into the slipstream of over 2,000 kph, exerting forces that caused it to disintegrate and plummet to the earth. Source.

The liquid fuel system had its own challenges, but on the opposite end of the temperature spectrum. Liquid fuel is actually combustible gas, hydrogen and oxygen, super-cooled to get them into their liquid states for storage. The liquid oxygen needs to be held at -183° C and the hydrogen at -253° C. The external tank required insulation both to keep the liquids efficiently cool inside, and to prevent the outside from forming ice, which could endanger the launching vehicle as high-speed projectiles—ice bullets being shot into the shuttle. The insulation was provided in the form of a spray-on foam, as well as pre-formed foam pieces. When the 5 engines were burning for lift-off, they were producing about 12 billion watts of power—about 16 million horsepower! That tremendous force causes severe vibration, which, along with possible improper application of the insulation, contributed to the shedding of foam insulation pieces (and ice) as a fairly regular occurrence on shuttle launches. Several significant strikes had been discovered on at least three missions prior to Columbia’s fateful flight, the most recent of which had not yet been fully evaluated at the time of launch. Engineers reviewing high-resolution video on the day after Columbia’s launch noticed that a significantly large piece of foam, about the size of a briefcase, near the left forward attachment point of the Columbia to the external tank broke off 82 seconds into the flight, and hit the leading edge of the left wing at around 530 mph. Post-accident testing showed that the force of that impact would have been enough to blow a hole as large as 42 by 41 cm through the thermal panels in the wing.

The insulation piece of foam at the upper left attachment point of the shuttle orbiter to the external fuel tank was the likely source of fatal damage to the left wing (lower circle) when it broke off at 82 seconds into the flight. Source.
foam-strike-still-frame copy
This picture, a screen capture from launch video, shows the shattered debris from the foam strike.  Source.
Post-accident testing simulated the exact conditions of the suspected foam strike, indicating that it could have blown a hole in the leading edge of the wing large enough to allow the hot gasses in on re-entry.

NASA’s Organizational Culture–Can Do!…but if you can’t, don’t bother me with disruptive information!

Explaining and fixing the technical problems that brought down the Challenger and the Columbia is easy, compared to addressing the underlying social and organizational contributions to the accidents. NASA’s cultural roots began under Cold War pressure, as the US scrambled to respond to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first satellite. On May 25th, 1961, before a joint session of Congress, President Kennedy boldly announced the race to safely put a man on the moon and bring him back within a decade– technical excellence, discipline, and grit accomplished that goal by 1969. But the renowned success of the Apollo missions led to an overconfidence—NASA leaders began to see the organization as the epitome of human organization, having accomplished mankind’s most tremendous feat.

President John F. Kennedy announcing America’s determination to send a man safely to the moon and back, May 25, 1961. The pressure of performance in the Cold War greatly affected the culture at NASA.  Source.

From the 1972 decision to develop the reusable shuttle, NASA started to become a “culture of production,” stressing efficiency over safety and factory-like production over curiosity and creative problem solving. Every mission success increased confidence and familiarity with the status quo that became harder and harder to change. Several researchers have noted that a division grew between technical-minded engineers and NASA management, which had to contend with the social and political pressures of production—keeping to an ambitious shuttle launch, recovery, and re-launch schedule; responding to budget cuts; and managing time pressure to complete the International Space Station. Engineers who maintained their curiosity and skepticism were less and less tolerated, because they threatened to slow down the production line. Leaders did not want to hear disruptive organizational information. They selectively paid attention to information that confirmed their “can-do” bias. Even after the Challenger fiasco, NASA administrator (1992-2001) Dan Goldin beat out a “Faster, Better, Cheaper” mantra that further suppressed curiosity and reinforced the narrowing of attention to only views compatible with the leadership vision. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board found that “Managers created huge barriers against dissenting opinions by stating preconceived conclusions based on subjective knowledge and experience, rather than solid data.”

50 Years of Exobiology and Astrobiology at NASA
Between 1992 and 2001, NASA administrator Dan Goldin perpetuated the culture of pressure, and division between engineers and management, with a mantra of “Faster, Better, Cheaper.” Source.

In both the Challenger and Columbia accidents, engineers were fully aware of the potential threats to the missions. In fact, engineer Roger Boisjoly, working for the solid rocket booster manufacturer Morton Thiokol in Utah, vehemently objected to a launch decision outside of the O-ring parameters, but was overruled by his superiors who caved in to pressure from NASA. His accident investigation congressional testimony eventually would kill his career in engineering with the company.

Space Shuttle Challenger Commission 1986
Solid Rocket Booster engineer Roger Boisjoly testifying before congress in the aftermath of Challenger. His disagreement on the launch decision that was overruled demonstrates the growing divide in NASA’s culture between engineers and management. Source.

The engineering team that discovered the foam strike on the Columbia launch, called the “Debris Assessment Team,” made three separate requests for imagery to inspect suspected damage. Officials even began the process of coordinating with the US military to see what resources were available to take pictures. NASA leadership (Shuttle Program Managers), however, actively suppressed these requests, considering foam strikes as relatively normal and inconsequential. An email from the flight director on the ground to the shuttle crew informed them that a piece of foam had been seen to impact the left wing, but dismissed the significance by noting that “Experts have reviewed the high speed photography and there is not concern for…tile damage. We have seen this same phenomenon on several other flights and there is absolutely no concern for entry.”

Accident Board Conclusion:  “diminished curiosity”

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board found that the feeling of superiority in NASA’s leadership culture led to “flawed decision making, self-deception, introversion and a diminished curiosity about the world outside the perfect place.” NASA had become “conditioned by success,” so that “the intellectual curiosity and skepticism that a solid safety culture requires was almost entirely absent.”  Patterns had emerged of heat-damaged O-rings, and high-velocity projectile collisions with foam and ice, and yet leadership refused to see those patterns because of a different reality they had constructed in their heads. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the institution charged with a mission of exploring space, pushing mankind’s frontiers, is faulted for lacking curiosity!


Curiosity may kill cats, but it’s a soft power skill essential for highly innovative and reliable organizations, or HIROs. Having a well-developed curiosity means that one is always looking for unexpected changes, unusual patterns, surprising results, and asking why. It means anticipating, rather than just reacting to, problems, looking for solutions. It also means vigilantly seeking opportunities, even in difficult situations.

Curiosity is the opposite to an enemy of clear decision making and leadership known as “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is our human tendency to select mostly that information that reinforces our previously established beliefs or attitudes. Are heat-damaged O-rings an indication of a serious problem? If we are predisposed to think that the space shuttle is operational and safe, with high standards of design, we focus on the information that says it’s a minor glitch that can be gradually corrected. It’s the same type of thinking when learning about pieces of insulation foam separating from the fuel tank and hitting the shuttle—we latch on to the information that confirms that it’s routine and not a threat. The more time and effort that we have invested in a project, and the more expert we feel about a subject, the deeper embedded becomes the bias. Confirmation bias narrows our field of vision, so that we either discount, or simply don’t notice, changes to patterns or things unusual outside of our focus.

The company Merck Group recently did an international “curiosity survey” of over 3000 workers in China, Germany, and the US. The results expose a common cross-cultural crisis of curiosity:

  • 67% of workers felt they had experienced at least one barrier to practicing curiosity in their workplace.
  • 73% of workers felt they experienced at least one barrier to asking more questions at work.
  • Only 20% of workers self-identified as curious.
  • Only 9% of workers felt the organizational culture at their workplace was extremely supportive of curiosity.

Although this is only a single survey, it’s likely that organizations that suppress organizationally disruptive information and curiosity abound across the globe. Curiosity comes naturally to children, but in the adult world of efficient production and increasing expertise, confirmation bias is the psychological norm.

Application: Building Curiosity and Fighting Confirmation Bias

So how do we develop our curiosity and fight confirmation bias?

  1. Change Your Perspective.

From an exercise I learned from psychologist Shawn Achor, I will ask people who I am coaching to draw a picture of a coffee cup. Almost invariably, they draw something like this:


Then, I will draw a simple circle, like this…


…and say, “Here’s my drawing of a coffee cup.” After looks that obviously question my mental stability, I explain that my cup is from a different perspective—from straight below (or above) the cup. Most people have preconceived notions or viewpoints of everyday objects, such as thinking about a coffee cup from a side or oblique angle.You can try this exercise with a team, and see how many are stuck in the one perspective.

A similar exercise is to ask your team to identify what object this is:


Some of them may understand that it’s three different perspectives of a pyramid:


Changing the angle of a camera can give us completely different, surprising perspectives. In the same way, we can consciously change the angles at which we look at events happening around us, or challenges at work. Could the NASA leadership have looked at the O-Ring or foam shedding problems from different perspectives? Could they have taken the astronauts’, or the engineers’ point of view?


  1. Take an Opposite Position

A related, simple way to open up your curious nature and overcome confirmation bias is to sincerely take up and defend a viewpoint opposite to your own. For example, if you have a project that you are passionate about, and would like to get more funding from the Big Boss, sit down and make an argument trying to squash the project. A sincere effort means that you don’t just set up paper tigers and straw men to push over, but dig in to real data that counteracts your own preferences. Conversely, if you are inclined to oppose an idea someone else has brought up, challenge yourself to make their convincing argument for them. NASA leaders could have broken out of their bias by taking the time to seriously construct an opposing argument.

Try building arguments for positions that you would not normally support.
  1. Welcome Respectful and Constructive Dissent

An analysis reviewing over 91 psychology studies, involving more than 8,000 participants, showed that people are more than twice as likely to choose information that confirm their own beliefs than those that disconfirm them. (How many people block or unfollow people that oppose their views on social media?) To develop the soft power skill of curiosity, it’s extremely important to welcome dissenting views. If we in leadership positions surround ourselves with subordinates who always go along, then why bother consulting them? Authors Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, discuss overcoming confirmation bias and the importance of reality testing the assumptions we make before arriving at our decisions. Some organizations create a system or position of the “devil’s advocate,” responsible for taking extremely critical looks at ideas in the organization. They give the example of “murder boards” in the military that look with highly skeptical eyes on proposed operational missions, with significant influence in killing the bad ones. But they note that establishing some formal contrarian system isn’t nearly as important as developing a culture that treats criticism as a “noble function.”

In the ancient kingdom of Israel, the powerful and capable King David had an incident of abusing his power, in which he had sex with the wife of one of his generals, got her pregnant, and then arranged for the general to be killed on the battlefield. One of David’s spiritual advisers, Nathan, came to confront him for his behavior. Although David, with his supreme power in the situation, could have easily ignored or even attacked that advisor, he instead accepted the criticism with great humility and remorse. That is the type of spirit leaders need to encourage with their team of advisors.

At the same time, the Heath brothers point out that we need to guard against an atmosphere in which disagreement descends into unproductive political struggles in the organization. A technique they recommend is to look at all competing options and ask, “What would have to be true for this option to be the right answer?” This helps politically competitive cliques to step back from emotional arguments to a more analytical approach. An honest search for the data or conditions that might convince us that one option is better than another forces us to be curious, to take different positions, and to overcome our bias to favor only information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.

The organization in Scott Adam’s Dilbert strip rarely allows dissent. Source.

As the accident investigation board pointed out, NASA had created a culture that did not encourage respectful and constructive dissent. The doors of program managers weren’t always open for team members who had serious concerns about the safety of the mission or crew. Rather than promoting an attitude of curiosity, always seeking new information, looking for new perspectives, and perpetually asking “what if…,” they ignored or suppressed contrary inputs.

Even though curiosity comes naturally to children, who love to endlessly ask questions, it’s easy for that skill to erode as we become more knowledgeable and self-assured that we have all the answers. Curiosity is a soft power skill that takes maintenance and development, both to keep us safe from bad consequences and creative in moving forward. The lesson from NASA teaches us that Highly Innovative and Reliable Organizations, the HIROs, must stay curious, or face disaster.

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.





Filling in the Gap: The 5 Uniquely Human Soft Power Skills For Responding to Our World


To many people, cats are cuteness personified…so many people, in fact, that by 2015 YouTube had over 2 million cat videos! But no matter how amusing they are, I’m glad that I’m not a cat. Cats, like all other non-humans, are mastered by their environment, reacting to stimuli and immediately responding. They sense food, or danger, or a pretty young feline, and have automatic responses…which, for the most part, helps guarantee their survival. But automatic responses are not always a good thing, especially in our human society. Responding to stimuli with responses of anger, jealousy, or sexual desire could easily get us in trouble. Fortunately, our developed brain allows us to pause in that gap between stimulus and response…and this is a critical part of what it means to be human.

In September of 1942, the Jewish doctor Viktor Frankl and his wife were sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. Under control of the Nazis, he would be moved from camp to camp, including infamous Auschwitz. By the time the Allied forces liberated the camps, his father, mother, brother, and wife would all be dead. In his famous book Man’s Search for Meaning, he recounted his observations and thoughts in the terrible, inhumane conditions, in which every aspect of his life seemed to be controlled by cruel people who sucked out the spirit and life of many prisoners. He found the one area over which he had absolute control, however, was the gap between stimulus and response. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”



The human brain is bigger for a reason—it has the ability to pause and consider things before making a response to a stimulus. We have the freedom to choose our response. In that gap, we can apply five uniquely human capabilities to reach a better response:

  • Mindfulness
  • Self-Awareness
  • Imagination
  • Independent Will
  • Conscience


Mindfulness is the ability to focus, directing our conscious attention, engaging all of our mental and emotional faculties to determine our action.

Self-awareness is the ability to stand outside of ourselves; to realize that we exist as a unique being in our environment, and that we have the power to control our actions.

Imagination is the ability to see multiple possible realities in any situation. It’s the ability to project ourselves into “what if” scenarios.

Independent Will is the strength, the motivating power, that drives us to make an appropriate choice in the gap.

Conscience is the ability to understand the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, and weigh between the different choices available.

Thankfully, we don’t have to be slaves to our environment. We don’t have to be victims to circumstances. We don’t have to just sit idle and react. We have the choice to engage those uniquely human abilities, those soft power skills, to be proactive, to change the world around us, and to engage others in making change.  The more we develop our soft power skills, becoming aware of our unique faculties and exercising them, the stronger we will become.

(Note: Some of the terms reflect those used in Dr. Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which provides further insights into the subject)

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.


While doing my morning hike yesterday, huffing and puffing through the jungle up to Phalad Temple, I had this thought about making progress in our lives.

How would we climb Mount Everest?

The same way we climb the hill behind our home…

one step at a time.

When the hill becomes steeper, we just take smaller steps and keep going.

When we meet an obstacle in the path, we find a way around, over, or through it…as long as we keep going…


Soft Power Skills and the Coming Revolution

The robot revolution has begun! Are all the hard skills and knowledge that we learned in school still going to be able to earn us a livelihood? Fortunately, we still can develop an advantage–our soft power skills. Read on to find out what skills will see you through the revolution.

Imagining a world of driverless cars, pilotless planes, robotic repairmen, and self-maintaining machines is not very difficult these days. Self-learning Artificial Intelligence (AI) is growing smarter every day, as machines teach themselves to continuously and independently improve. For example, Google’s translation software has made dramatic improvements over the last year, as they’ve changed the algorithm so that the software continues to learn languages like French, Japanese, and Chinese on its own.  In music, the “Deep Artificial Composer” creates original melodies by first being taught to listen to tunes, learning the rules of good compositions, and then is unleashed to compose on its own. The hardware of robots is becoming ever smaller, ever more flexible, making their functions more elegant and practical. Jobs that many thought were safe are quickly being taken over by machines powered with AI. Dow Jones’ Market Watch recently published a story “10 Jobs Robots Already Do Better Than You,” including stockroom worker, bartender, soldier, pharmacist, farmer, journalist, housekeeper, paralegals, and tellers. A McKinsey report ominously states, “After years of promise and hype, machine learning has at last hit the vertical part of the exponential curve. Computers are replacing skilled practitioners in fields such as architecture, aviation, the law, medicine, and petroleum geology—and changing the nature of work in a broad range of other jobs and professions. Deep Knowledge Ventures, a Hong Kong venture-capital firm, has gone so far as to appoint a decision-making algorithm to its board of directors.”




How should we respond to this coming revolution of the way our world works? From our youngest school days, we have been learning “hard skills” of technical knowledge and talents that we hoped would be the things that made our livelihood in our adult years… learning to repair cars, fly airplanes, design buildings, run a restaurant, write news reports, cure patients, etc. Many of those hard skills are now being learned and performed by AI robots, and this trend is bound to increase in the future.

Perhaps it’s not yet time to panic—after all, many of those hard skills are still useful and better done by humans, or perhaps they’ll be transformed into a collaborative human-machine partnership. The famous defeat of chess champion Kasparov by IBM’s Deep Blue supposedly demonstrated the supremacy of machine over man; and yet, subsequent experience has shown that a team of humans paired with a machine beats the best single chess program.

Kasparov playing IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997…a match he lost. Source

Fortunately, the hard occupational skills we learn are not the only advantages we have as humans. The areas that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for AI machines to replace are what I call “Soft Power Skills.” These are skills that transfer from one occupation or technical skill to another, and are usually only indirectly taught in our formal education. The concept is an adaptation of a political science term “soft power,” and the idea of “soft skills.”

The term “soft power” was developed by political scientist Joseph S. Nye Jr. in describing a type of national power. For Nye, power in general “is the ability to influence the behavior of others to get the outcomes one wants….in behavioral terms soft power is attractive power.”[1]  He describes individual soft power as resting on the skills of “emotional intelligence, vision, and communication….”

The simple term “soft skills” likely originated in the information technology sector (who thought in terms of hardware and software), and has become a buzzword in recent decades, used in business, economic, social science and psychology circles, and subsequently has many definitions. In general, however, soft skills can be divided into skills about knowing and controlling oneself, and interacting with others for mutually positive outcomes.

I define “soft power skills” as the tools of self-regulation, positive virtues and values, and creativity that can be used to positively communicate with and attract fellow humans to create meaningful and positive outcomes. This definition can expand and change with our continued exploration of the idea—the following list of what I consider soft power skills will clarify better than a single definition:

Soft Power Skills List

  • Emotional intelligence – ability to understand and control one’s feelings
  • Social intelligence – ability to understand other’s feelings
  • Resourcefulness— ability to take available resources, innovate, and solve problems
  • Internalization of positive, attractive values and principles
  • Expression of virtuous, ethical behavior
  • Situational Awareness – Ability to match what you perceive to be happening with what is actually happening
  • Mindfulness – Ability to step into the gap between stimulus and an automatic response by focusing attention and fully applying one’s mental resources
  • Ability to see multiple potential desirable realities
  • Ability to make connections between things or events that don’t seem related at first
  • Ability to see patterns and changes to patterns
  • Ability to make disruptive innovation and change
  • Ability to analyze data, determine truth, prioritize importance, filter noise, and produce a succinct, clear, credible, actionable product of information
  • Ability to make smart decisions
  • Ability to attract people to your ideas and vision
  • Ability to tell an engaging story and persuade—to communicate with empathy and persuasive power
  • Ability to motivate oneself and others to positive action
  • Ability to assess strengths in others and align the right people with the right task
  • Ability to provide constructive criticism
  • Polite
  • Diplomatic
  • Humorous
  • Collaborative
  • Able to Negotiate

The combination of all these skills is really what leadership is all about…but it’s also more than just leadership. Learning soft power skills improves our own lives, and changes the environment around us for the better. These skills can all be learned, as social, economic, biological, and psychological sciences continue to make advances in our understanding of how to acquire and use the skills. Andaman Inspirations focuses on helping the reader develop soft power skills, sifting through the noise and information overload to produce material with succinct, actionable knowledge. I hope to stimulate and sustain a conversation that helps us meet and win the revolution ahead.

executive of the future_1536x1536_Original

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

[1] Nye, Joseph S., Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: PublicAffairs, 2004, p. 2.