Different Milks: 7 small efforts for big empathy

Karen Faith
Sub Rosa
Published in
3 min readFeb 3, 2020


During a recent brainstorm, I asked our team for signs of empathy deficits in the workplace. This was one of their submissions.

No matter how you cream your coffee, pulling off an empathy initiative externally can go sour if the team isn’t practicing it internally. With that in mind, Sub Rosa recently began compiling a list of ways to know if your team’s empathy practice needs a little work.

To get started, we outlined a simple matrix, organized by Sub Rosa’s 7 Empathic Archetypes. The archetypes are interaction styles that might be thought of as skill sets. In order to get a thorough compilation of empathy deficit symptoms, we catalogued scenarios where each archetypal skill was low.

The Empathic Archetypes are seven modes of being, which describe ways of relating to others. The Confidant is a trusted listener, while the Convener is an intuitive host. The Cultivator is a nurturing strategist, and the Sage’s gift is to be present. Seekers take risks, Inquirers ask questions, and Alchemists tinker and test.

What does it look like if a team has low Confidant behaviors? What about a lack of Alchemist practice? No Inquirers? Missing Sages? What happens if there isn’t a Seeker in the mix?

“Only one kind of milk” fell under Low Convener, and was a bit of a sneaky brag, since Sub Rosa is a High Convener atmosphere, and has been known to stock 2%, Whole, Almond, Oat, Coconut and Soy on the regular.

Not to be dismissed for its specificity, this tiny creamer crit opened up the inquiry. After all, “in the particular lies the universal,”(hat tip, James Joyce), and we found that these details made each archetype magnetic and relatable, something we could all feel and understand.

Thus, from the brainstorm, we generated a list of seven things you can do today to up the empathy in your team. We recommend sharing this in your next Stand Up with a coffee and your milk of choice.

Ask for advice from someone outside your field, and then take it.

(Ok, maybe just sketch it out.) Alchemists are in it to learn, not necessarily to win. Taking a perspective external to your expertise shows respect to others, and is sure to reveal something unexpected. At best, you make a breakthrough, and at worst, you make a friend.

When you feel the urge to chime in with your own story, don’t.

It’s easy to feel we are empathizing when we share our connection to another person’s experience, and sometimes we are! But it isn’t the way of the Confidant. Reel yourself in for a little longer than you normally would, and be amazed at what you hear.

Start a meeting by inviting everyone to share what is top of mind.

This may seem to take a little more time, but the humanity and understanding it invites reduces misfires and accelerates alignment immeasurably. As a side bonus, it also gives every voice a place to speak at the start, which boosts participation more than you might guess.

Have a productive coffee with someone you don’t work with directly.
The Cultivator invests in people long-term, not for immediate gain. Spend some non-trivial time with someone from whom you need nothing. Ask them about what they are working on, what they need, what they love. And enjoy the journey.

The next time someone shares a success, find out what made it work.

I recently mentioned to a colleague that I’d slept well and instead of simply applauding me, she asked me what I’d done differently. Her investment felt good, but I also noted how to do it again because she invited me to see it. Dig into wins with others and learn to win more.

Instead of doodling, take body language notes.

We’ve all been there: invited to listen and not to speak. So we take notes… which end up as doodles. Instead, look around. Who seems confident? Who’s fidgeting? Who’s grinning? Who looks away when questioned? Read the room and you’ll be uncommonly equipped to respond when the time comes.

Ask “what would we do if we couldn’t fail?” in every single meeting.

It won’t always be welcome, but there are few times it isn’t valuable to remember where your team’s heart is. Removing risk clears the way for the focused, potent visioning that compels the Seeker in us to swing hard, no matter the chance of a home run. When it’s time, it’s time.



Karen Faith
Sub Rosa

Karen Faith is an ethnographer and founder of Others Unlimited, empathy training for research, collaboration, and citizenship.