Ombud's corner: Empathy

In this series, the Bulletin aims to explain the role of the Ombuds at CERN by presenting practical examples of misunderstandings that could have been resolved by the Ombuds if he had been contacted earlier. Please note that, in all the situations we present, the names are fictitious and used only to improve clarity.


Many conflicts between people could be avoided or resolved if both parties could understand the situation as if they were in the other’s shoes. Putting oneself into another’s position, either consciously or unconsciously, is called empathy. Empathy should not be confused with sympathy, which involves condolence or pity for the other; empathy is a neutral process, leading to the inner knowledge of another person. Individuals differ in their level of empathic ability. This may be due to environmental factors – like their education or personal experiences – or it may be because they are not receptive to the feedback they obtain and so cannot read and learn from it. So empathy is not only a natural ability, but can also be learnt by decoding the feedback we receive from other people.

Empathy is a great tool in the positive resolution of potential issues. Let me give you an example of the same situation, first handled without, and then with empathy.

Joe* is a Doctoral Student at CERN. As such he has a CERN supervisor, Mike*, and is also in close communication with his thesis adviser from a collaborating institute. After a year and a half at CERN, Mike asks Joe to come to his office, as he wants to set few things straight concerning how his work is advancing. As soon as the meeting starts, Mike tells Joe that he is not satisfied with the development of his work and that he does not think that he will be able to accept what he is working on as a basis for his thesis. In addition, Mike says that Joe also has not done what he was supposed to do for CERN. Joe is completely shocked, as he had been talking recently to his adviser who seemed satisfied with his work. He then tries to argue that his CERN responsibilities took him more time than expected, so he did not have a chance to progress as much as he wanted on his thesis. But Joe avoids mentioning that his adviser is supporting him, as Mike is the Leader of the entire project in which his own University is participating. The meeting ends with Joe completely threatened and Mike sure of his facts. Joe’s future is then in bad shape. This is what would have happened in a no-empathy meeting.

Let us consider the same meeting, but now involving empathy. Right away Mike notices that Joe is not comfortable with the subject of the meeting, as he looks afraid to sit down and sits only on the edge of the chair without saying anything. Looking at Joe and sitting near him, Mike starts by explaining that he would like to discuss two things: how his thesis is progressing and his CERN responsibilities. Then Mike says that, from his point of view, there seems to be a problem with how Joe is dividing his time between the two projects, as he would have normally expected faster progress of both. He then asks Joe how he sees the situation, giving him a chance to express his views, as he has noticed that Joe is not at all at ease. Joe can then explain, without fear, why his CERN responsibilities took him more time than he expected, leaving less time for his thesis. “However,” says Joe, “I discussed my thesis with my adviser; he understands the situation and is ready to help me with writing it, if I need it.” Mike naturally respects this, and works with Joe to see if there is any way to alleviate some of his CERN responsibilities, so his adviser can be satisfied with his student's stay at CERN.

Paying attention to empathy at the beginning of a discussion or meeting will allow everyone to pick up on several elements that could help in conducting the exchange, instead of jumping to conclusions. Remember that if you have any fears or doubts on how to conduct a difficult discussion, the Ombuds is here to help you find the correct way… with empathy!

* Names and stories are purely imaginary.

Contact the Ombuds Early!


by Vincent Vuillemin