Empathy is a interesting word, the dictionary definition is:

1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.

Do we need empathy in our lives? Empathy is often a word we use in respect to other people and our expectations of them with comments like “they don’t have empathy” or “they need empathy”. Sometimes it seems we don’t have a deep understanding of what empathy even means to ourselves, let alone what it means to others. For me, short verse, empathy means: being able to put myself into someone else’s shoes. It’s the ability to feel or imagine another person’s experience.  It often requires that we learn to suspend judgment and work to understand the other person’s perspective. This becomes most especially important, if you don’t agree with or like the other perspective.  Empathy isn’t about feeling sorry for another, but rather it’s the ability to feel compassion for what their experience is.  It’s finding a way to recognize “the me, in you”.

Empathy comes off sounding ‘soft’ or unnecessary in business, but in reality, empathy is a big part of Emotional Intelligence and it is the process by which we improve relationships.  In relationships, we often start off with positivity.  Then, due to the daily hazards of interacting with others, those positive feelings can erode. We develop habits of interactions, conversations, expectations, and arguments.  We build walls against the annoyances, the hurts and disappointments.  As we build walls, see ourselves as different than others; we can tend to lose the ability to care.  It’s this ability to care that allows us access to the other person’s emotional landscape.  This loss can cause no end of problems. We might see others’ motives maybe more harshly or negatively than we would have if we had kept our openness toward them.  In an University of Michigan,  August 2010 study lead by Sarah Konrath, she found that empathy is on the decline and that while we are hardwired to care, social and cultural impact can negatively affect our ability to empathize.  This hurts relationships, it hurts work atmospheres, and it impacts the bottom line, as wreckage takes time and resources to fix.  One positive take away, is that what can be unlearned, can also be relearned.  It just takes awareness, intention, and practice.

At this point in my life, I have come to believe everyone is a sale person.  I don’t care what you do for a living you’re selling something.  Some people sell cars, others sell widgets, or apps, some sell stories, others sell how to think, or learn, and some sell ideas.  I personally sell ideas and how to think through situations in order to be more effective.  So how do you sell your product?  What are the internal and external guides that direct you to buy this car, or that widget, or another idea?  Often it comes down to relationships, with a person, a business, a feeling, a need, and/or an idea.  We are motivated along these lines.  So, let’s say I am a nice person, but I don’t read cues well, and you end up feeling like I don’t get you at all.  Are you going to want to give me your business?  Maybe once, but to build a brand or to build a business, hopefully we are thinking a little farther than one sale.  Relationships are key to success and empathy is key to relationships.

Daniel Goldman talks about how in a growing global market, misunderstanding can arise and people need to be able to either not do damage or know how to read problematic situations, so they can fix it.  Also, how do leaders retain talent if they stomp all over them?  That only works if you’re so wildly successful that people will put up with you, are you that kind of successful?  If not, pay attention.

It’s not only about listening to your employee’s or your customers, but it’s about the ability to weigh needs.  Good employers take others feelings into account as they are making broader decisions.

So, what’s a person to do to increase empathy? Increasing empathy requires several key elements.  

Awareness.  In a nutshell, it’s time to wake up.  This means seeing ourselves with clarity.  We all feel things, and awareness means that I need to understand my own emotions.  If I understand that I’m happy, annoyed, distracted, angry or hurt, I can take steps to take care of myself.  Shifting from an egocentric perspective about my feelings into one of insights that allow me to access the idea that other people are feeling something too.  Our understanding of our emotions helps us to read and understand other peoples’ emotions.   Think about it; businesses often treat customers in ways that no individual would enjoy being treated.  It isn’t rocket science, it’s actually common sense.  If I were treated the way that I am treating others… how would I react?

Be Interested.  Have you ever had a boss or a co-worker, or heck even a friend, who was terminally set on “output”? It can shut people down if all we do is talk at them.  We show empathy by actually showing interest in what someone else is saying, not just about what we are saying.  Take time to ask questions, work on developing an understanding or who they are, remember peoples’ names, remember their families’ names.  Showing interest in people matters.  I recently read a book called The Charisma Myth, by Olivia Fox Cabane, and she talked about this very thing.  Charismatic people show interest in others.  You feel like maybe you’re the only one in the room, because they are looking at you, listening to you, and responding to you.  We don’t remember what people do, we remember how we feel.

Willingness to Listen.  Steven Covey called it the dialog of the deaf, when everyone is talking but no one is listening.  If you walk through the world and don’t care about the experience of others, then reread the above paragraph.  Empathy is grounded in listening.  We need to be willing to suspend our own voice, perspective, or opinion long enough to really listen to the other person.  Hearing someone is not even close to the same thing as agreement.  So, I am not necessarily agreeing with everything they say, when I listen to understand.  I am just working on really understanding what they mean and where they are coming from.  Listening is as important a tool as being able to read or write.  Many of the biggest issues I have seen in organizations and systems, stem from misunderstanding and a dearth of listening.

Presence. aka. Nonverbal Body Language.  This really fits with listening, in that we project our feelings by all sorts of nonverbal cues.  We can say, have a nice day, and mean very different things based on tone alone.  Our posture can communicate annoyance or interest.  Especially on the phone, we can hear distraction a mile away.  Yeah, yeah, what, what did you just say???  When we are paying attention and have a goal of curiosity or interest, we communicate that clearly with how we hold ourselves, the types of questions that we ask, the reactions and responses to what is being said.  All this, wrapped up in a bow, is presence.

Openness.  People have different perspectives. We come to life situations from different cultures, experiences, and belief systems.  If I care about xyz, and I want a team or an organization to be successful, I want to hear all the perspectives.  Some call this brainstorming, but successful leaders learn to use these differences to make powerful changes.  It’s important to ask the quiet folks to speak up too.  It’s really easy to get all the extroverts to share, in fact they will at times over share, but getting lots of people to share takes paying attention.  Whether we are talking team members or customers, openness means that I want to hear many perspectives, ideas, insights, and opinions.  This enriches our organizations, our teams, and helps us stretch ourselves past the limits that we can create by not entertaining enough ideas.

Basic psychology 101 says, we like people who like us… Say that a few times, because it’s important.  Empathy is easy to overlook, but we do so at our own peril.  We all want to be liked, we all want to feel like someone gets us.

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