What's Empathy Got to Do With It?

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A few weeks ago, I came across a bumper sticker that said: "I am not good at empathy. Will you settle for sarcasm?" The humor in the bumper sticker led me to think of the slight unease or self-conscious discomfort that many people feel when a term such as "empathy" is introduced in a business environment. Notions of "touchy-feely," spring to mind.

While empathy is a right brain activity, it is far from being a touchy-feely topic. At its core, empathy is the oil that keeps relationships running smoothly. The fact that empathy is an important component of effective relationships has been proven: In studies by Dr Antonio Damasio (outlined in his book: "Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain"), medical patients who had damage to part of the brain associated with empathy showed significant deficits in relationship skills, even though their reasoning and learning abilities remained intact.

Indeed, empathy is valued currency. It allows us to create bonds of trust, it gives us insights into what others may be feeling or thinking; it helps us understand how or why others are reacting to situations, it sharpens our "people acumen" and it informs our decisions.

A formal definition of Empathy is the ability to identify and understand another's situation, feelings and motives. It's our capacity to recognize the concerns other people have. Empathy means: "putting yourself in the other person's shoes" or "seeing things through someone else's eyes."

There are numerous studies that link empathy to business results. They include studies that correlate empathy with increased sales, with the performance of the best managers of product development teams and with enhanced performance in an increasingly diverse workforce. A few of these studies can be viewed on the site of The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations.

Yes, increasingly, the topic of empathy is encroaching on the business world. We are now even seeing terms such as "empathy marketing" and "empathy selling." Not long ago, I came across the term "user empathy," referring to user interface.

Along those lines, in his book, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, Daniel Pink predicts that power will reside with those who have strong right-brain (interpersonal) qualities. He cites three forces that are causing this change: Abundance, Asia, and Automation. "Abundance" refers to our increasing demand for products or services that are aesthetically pleasing; "Asia" refers to the growing trend of outsourcing; "Automation" is self-explanatory. In order to compete in the new economy market, Pink suggests six areas that are vital to our success. One of which is Empathy; the ability to imagine yourself in someone else's position, to imagine what they are feeling, to understand what makes people tick, to create relationships and to be caring of others: All of which is very difficult to outsource or automate, and yet is increasingly important to business.

Empathy is also particularly critical to leadership development in this age of young, independent, highly marketable and mobile workers. In a popular Harvard Business Review article entitled "What Makes a Leader?", Dr Daniel Goleman isolates three reasons why empathy is so important: the increasing use of teams, (which he refers to as "cauldrons of bubbling emotions"), the rapid pace of globalization (with cross cultural communication easily leading to misunderstandings) and the growing need to retain talent. "Leaders with empathy," states Goleman, "do more than sympathize with people around them: they use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle, but important ways." This doesn't mean that they agree with everyone's view or try to please everybody. Rather, they "thoughtfully consider employees' feelings – along with other factors – in the process of making intelligent decisions."

Empathy, then, is an ability that is well-worth cultivating. It's a soft, sometimes abstract tool in a leader's toolkit that can lead to hard, tangible results. But where does empathy come from? Is it a process of thinking or of emotion? From my perspective, I believe that it is both: We need to use our reasoning ability to understand another person's thoughts, feelings, reactions, concerns, motives. This means truly making an effort to stop and think for a moment about the other person's perspective in order to begin to understand where they are coming from: And then we need the emotional capacity to care for that person's concern; Caring does not mean that we would always agree with the person, that we would change our position, but it does mean that we would be in tune with what that person is going through, so that we can respond in a manner that acknowledges their thoughts, feelings or concerns.

So this leads me to a question that I am sometimes asked: "Can you teach someone to be empathetic?" We all know some people who are naturally and consistently empathetic – these are the people who can easily forge positive connections with others. They are people who use empathy to engender trust and build bonds; they are catalysts who are able to create positive communities for the greater good. But even if empathy does not come naturally to some of us, I firmly believe that we can develop this capacity.

Here are a few practical tips you might consider to help you do this:

  1. Listen – truly listen to people. Listen with your ears, eyes and heart. Pay attention to others' body language, to their tone of voice, to the hidden emotions behind what they are saying to you, and to the context.
  2. Don't interrupt people. Don't dismiss their concerns offhand. Don't rush to give advice. Don't change the subject. Allow people their moment.
  3. Tune in to non-verbal communication. This is the way that people often communicate what they think or feel, even when their verbal communication says something quite different.
  4. Practice the "93 percent rule". We know from a famous study by Professor Emeritus, Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, when communicating about feelings and attitudes,  words – the things we say – account for only 7 percent of the total message that people receive. The other 93 percent of the message that we communicate when we speak is contained in our tone of voice and body language. It's important, then, to spend some time to understand how we come across when we communicate with others about our feelings and attitudes.
  5. Use people's name. Also remember the names of people's spouse and children so that you can refer to them by name.
  6. Be fully present when you are with people. Don't check your email, look at your watch or take phone calls when a direct report drops into your office to talk to you. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if your boss did that to you?
  7. Smile at people.
  8. Encourage people, particularly the quiet ones, when they speak up in meetings. A simple thing like an attentive nod can boost people's confidence.
  9. Give genuine recognition and praise. Pay attention to what people are doing and catch them doing the right things. When you give praise, spend a little effort to make your genuine words memorable: "You are an asset to this team because..."; "This was pure genius"; "I would have missed this if you hadn't picked it up."
  10. Take a personal interest in people. Show people that you care, and genuine curiosity about their lives. Ask them questions about their hobbies, their challenges, their families, their aspirations.

Empathy is an emotional and thinking muscle that becomes stronger the more we use it. Try some of these suggestions and watch the reactions of those you work with. I believe you will notice some positive results.

Years ago, I had come across a saying that went something like this: the measure of a man [or woman], is how they treat someone who is of absolutely no use to them. Empathy should not be selective: It should be a daily habit. If I were to create a bumper sticker, I would say: "Empathy: Don't Leave Home Without It!"

Copyright © 2006-2014 Bruna Martinuzzi. All Rights Reserved.

This article is adapted from Bruna Martinuzzi’s book: The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow. Bruna is an educator, author, speaker and founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd, a company which specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership, Myers-Briggs and presentation skills training.  Visit her website at www.increaseyoureq.com.

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Comments (7)
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Sulis-Minerva

    Thanks for your comment and I do agree with you. And even if you are the type of person who are more focused on others anyway, a little reminder never hurts!

    I also think that true empathy is the mark of an emotionally mature person. Really being able to think what it must be like in someone else's situation (and not just a superficial quick thought) helps us to be kinder and more tolerant.

    The more of us who truly care, the bigger the impact we can make!

    Yolandé
  • Sulis_Minerva wrote Over a month ago
    In a world where it's increasingly about me, me, me any reminder to act in a human way is welcome
  • bigk wrote Over a month ago
    Hi

    Now I have had another look, it seems helping people communicate better together with each other is not yet good enough, unless we share success with each other to understand how we try to develop ourselves and others...

    Have we been here already or are we now somewhere new?

    Have we just arrived in time to leave or have we arrived to leave for a temporary destination and not arrived in time to lead us in a circular direction that will eventually lead us to the same place where we....? (are our different objectives in fact the same?)

    If we can develop while we move or stay in this position, it will help us develop how we can help each other to help those that ask our help.

    Bigk
  • bigk wrote Over a month ago
    Hi

    In the balance of caring for the people, the business, the performance and the future and forward direction of the business, there is another aspect that helps develop the people and the business which also allows you to develop the people while still providing forward progress of people and business.

    This still allows the people to change and allows the business to change.

    Yet this still needs you to get the new or current people to progress yourself, them self and the business itself.
    Often this requires a new way to be more emphatic but perhaps it just needs to acknowledge when the business needs to be more supportive in the business objectives and the trust given to the people to develop the business and themselves.

    This needs to adjust to when the business changes when the people want to move on or when new people need to fill the new position vacated without the business adapting to this change.

    Bigk
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all

    Very much a case of 'people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care'. Even though we are running businesses, without people those businesses wouldn't be able to operate. So, caring about those who help make our businesses successful almost seems only logical to do...

    Regards
    Yolandé
  • zuni wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all,

    I work in a telecommunications company which is dominated by left brained people. I can attest to the author's comment that empathy, and anything associated with emotional intelligence, is considered wishy washy.

    Our lack of attention to the "soft" side of leadership is now becoming our achilles heel. Our employee engagement scores are dropping in a time when we need every employee to be fully engaged and doing whatever it takes to serve our customers and achieve our objectives. We are now educating leaders about the importance of knowing their employees (career aspirations, desires) and caring about them by listening to them and hearing what they are saying and acting on issues that cause distrust.

    In the final analysis, we all want to be respected and acknowledged. Empathy is the behaviour that helps us cultivate compassion and caring for others.

    Zuni
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    This is a great article that outlines why empathy is so useful in the business world. Plus, with all the practical tips on how to use/develop empathy, it's an easy tool to use for reminding ourselves!

    For me, developing empathy with others not only is good for business, yet also from a human perspective of connect, relating and understanding others.

    Midgie

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