Last fall I witnessed a most unusual and effective tennis lesson. Later I realized how empathy was at the heart of this success story.

Frank, my longtime tennis opponent, had a strong forehand that had weakened considerably. It got so that I expected to win every set, and he expected the same outcome. Eventually, he lost interest in our regular competition, and I lost a regular tennis opponent.

Then Josh Williams, a friend and associate at Safety Performance Solutions, stepped in to help. Josh played varsity tennis for four years at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, and subsequently taught tennis professionally at John Newcome's Tennis Resort. When Josh arrived at my tennis court, I asked him if he wanted to watch Frank and I rally for a while so he could assess the problem. Numerous tennis instructors use this approach. They observe a student hit a tennis ball numerous times, and then provide direct feedback by verbalizing and demonstrating certain behavioral changes. Then they watch some more and give specific feedback.

But Josh declined my idea. Instead, he took my side of the court and began rallying with Frank. He didn't say anything about any problem, just "Nice shot" a number of times to commend good performance.

At one point, Josh stopped rallying and asked Frank where he thought he was having difficulty. Convinced he knew his problem, Frank discussed the way he grips his racket when shifting from a backhand to forehand stroke. Frank does hold his racket differently than most (using what's referred to as a Western grip instead of the more common Eastern grip).

Josh agreed with Frank's diagnosis and asked him to rally some more balls. This time Josh used the same Western grip as Frank, and mimicked his forehand stroke. In this way, Josh could understand exactly how it felt to be in Frank's tennis shoes. When switching from a backhand to forehand stroke, Josh changed his grip exactly as Frank in order to appreciate the difficulty Frank was experiencing.

Josh truly empathized with Frank's situation, and as a result he provided more relevant advice. And because Josh demonstrated genuine understanding and appreciation of Frank's problem, his advice was readily accepted.