What would the business world look like without the trait of human empathy? Let’s face it, as objective, rational and data-driven as we seek to make our organisational systems, the underlying truth is that all organisations are simply structured collections of those pesky subjective, unpredictable non-linear ‘systems’ that we call human beings. Empathy is undoubtedly the most important leadership skill of our times, because it gets us out of our linear machine-minds and right into the thick of the human experience.
And as organisations battle to survive in a struggling global economy, the ability to properly understand the deeper layers of humanity in ourselves, our employees and our customers will be essential for fostering a truly sustainable competitive advantage. Most organisations have no idea just how much the absence of empathy costs them each year but the true price tag is evident in unnecessary litigation, absenteeism, grievances, conflict and interpersonal problems, customer service problems, poor collaboration, draining effort to get things done, hardly any innovation, resistance to change, loss of intellectual capital etc.
Twenty percent of a person's success is estimated to be based on what is normally considered intelligence: the ability to learn, understand and reason. The other 80% is based on the ability to understand ourselves and interact with people. Indeed, empathy is valued currency. It facilitates us to develop bonds of trust, it gives us insights into what others might be feeling or thinking; it benefits us to comprehend how or why others are reacting to cases, it sharpens our “people acumen” and informs our choices. Without empathy, people tend to go about life without considering how other people feel or what they may be thinking. Each of us has different perspectives. We all experience moods, pain and hurt, joy and sadness. And we are so limited when we only see our own perspective. Without taking a moment to assess another, it is easy to make assumptions and jump to conclusions. People do not feel heard or understood.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to feel another person’s emotions as if they are your own: All of which is very hard to outsource or automate. It involves understanding that people make decisions for their own reasons, not ours. There are always reasons. Customers have reasons, prospects have reasons, employees have reasons, co-workers have reasons. They might not be our reasons. Empathy signifies: “putting yourself in the other person’s shoes” or “seeing things through someone else’s eyes”. Another expert Daniel Goleman defines it as “Sensing others’ emotions, understanding their perspective, and taking an active interest in their concerns”. Trying to grasp another person’s situation and behaviour is very hard to do. Why? Because You always see it from Your perspective: “If I were him/her, I would do this or that.”
Empathy does not mean trying to please everyone – it is simply an awareness of what others feel and an ability to monitor the effect of one's own actions on others. You thoughtfully consider others’ feelings – in conjunction with other circumstances – in the process of making intelligent choices. This signifies truly making an effort to stop and think for a moment about the other person’s point of view in order to take off to comprehend where they are coming from. So you know what they are feeling, or at least you suspect you know what they are experiencing, and you communicate that to elicit further discussion or clarification.
The easiest way to understand the importance of empathy is to recall times when you have been misunderstood or have been in pain. Think of how securing, how pleasant, indeed, how heart-warming it is when someone develops and demonstrates empathy for you.
It is important to understand that the ability to empathize is directly dependent on your ability to feel your own feelings and identify them. If you have never felt a certain feeling, it will be hard for you to understand how another person is feeling. Right now you are asking yourself… “When was the last time I was empathetic?”
What is the difference between sympathy and empathy?
Many erroneously believe that the terms sympathy and empathy are synonymous. Although both words have to do with feelings, they do express different grades of feelings. Sympathy is literally “feeling with” - compassion for or commiseration with another person. Empathy, by contrast, is literally “feeling into” - the ability to project one's personality into another person and more fully understand that person (think of an "empath"). Sympathy derives from Latin and Greek words meaning “having a fellow feeling”. The term empathy originated in psychology (translation of a German term, c. 1903) and has now come to mean the ability to imagine or project oneself into another person's position and experience all the sensations involved in that position. You feel empathy when you've "been there", and sympathy when you haven't. In many ways, being empathic is a gift, because it allows you to fully experience, understand and support others. It is an aptitude that is well-worth cultivating.
Can empathy be learned?
We all know some people who are naturally and consistently empathetic – these are the people who can simply forge positive connections with others. They are people who use empathy to engender trust and create bonds. Although empathy doesn’t come naturally to some of us, we can create this aptitude. Empathy is like an emotion muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.
Here are some practical recommendations you might consider to help you do this:
• Be fully present when you are with people. Too often we are in our own heads; we have our own agenda. We are busy. So we don't pay attention to what others are thinking or feeling. In order to improve, we need to be more self-aware and more aware of others. Do not check your email, look at your watch or take phone calls when an employee drops into your office to talk to you or when you have meetings with someone. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if your boss or meeting partner did that to you?
• Listen without interrupting – do not interrupt people. Do not dismiss their concerns offhand. Do not rush to give advice. Do not change the subject. Give people their moment. Listen to understand. Having listened to what they have to say, synthesise their experience and reflect it back to them verbally, ideally using their words, “So you are feeling …..”
• Rid yourself of the “I’m Right, You’re Wrong!” mindset. Many people have a reflex negative reaction towards anyone who has an opinion different from theirs. They feel threatened when someone questions their point of view, immediately becoming defensive and failing to appreciate the other person’s perspective. Their entire demeanor suggests that they are poised for attack and will not permit alternative views to enter their space. Don’t allow your need to be always right to blind you from seeing other possible perspectives.
• Take a personal interest in people. People aren’t just cogs in your profit machine: They’re living human beings. And like you, they respond favourably when you show genuine care, and authentic curiosity about their lives. Ask them questions about their hobbies, their challenges, their families, their aspirations.
• Take time to get to know people. Remember, you can't really empathize with a person if you are not able to know what they are feeling, experiencing or thinking!
• Show real empathy, not fake concern. When it's forced, it's fake … Most people see through someone who communicates like an actor playing a role. If you seem canned, you’ll lose chances to build rapport and credibility.
If there was ever a time for empathy, perhaps the time is now. Understanding and relating to others in a manner that instills trust is critical for success! Better working teams, improved communication, stronger networks, promotion of trust and respect, real understanding of stakeholder and customer needs will lead to a sane business management and will most likely improve the financial results of your organisation. Says Dev Patnaik, author of “Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy: “The best organisations (and the ones that survive economic tsunamis), are those with empathetic cultures and managers who are able to step outside themselves and walk in someone else’s shoes”. In the end, empathy is a choice. We have to choose to improve, to care, to get out of our own way and to bridge the gaps between us - generations, cultures, race, religions, socioeconomics, etc. Empathy for “other people” is the one commodity the world is lacking more than oil.
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"By Karl Smith: speaker, author and founder of Business Networking South Africa” Cape Town, South Africa. +27 (0) 71 444 2210 firstname.lastname@example.org www.businessnetworkingsouthafrica.co.za"