Many people feel uneasy or discomfort when empathy is introduced in a business environment even though this is disappearing with the recent emphasis on emotional intelligence. 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."
Benefits of Empathy
Empathy is the oil that keeps relationships running smoothly. 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. Emotional intelligence is associated with the right side of the brain. In studies by Dr Antonio Damasion, as 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. It also has business results: empathy is associated with increased sales, with the performance of the best managers, and with enhanced performance in an increasingly diverse workforce, since all these require people skills.
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? 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.
Empathy is an emotional and thinking muscle that becomes stronger the more we use it. Use the Listen, Care, and Encourage method to practice empathy.
- 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. 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. 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.
- Care- Take a personal interest in people. Show people that you care, and be genuinely curious about their lives. Ask them questions about their hobbies, their challenges, their families, their aspirations. Remember people's names. Refer to them by name. 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?
- Encourage – Encourage people, particularly the quiet ones, when they speak up in meetings. A simple thing like an attentive nod can boost people's confidence. 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 a pure genius"; “I would have missed this if you hadn't picked it up."
Try some of these suggestions on a daily basis, and watch the reactions of those you work with. I believe you will notice some positive results.