Imagine you are a superhero and a natural disaster occurs. It’s bad, on a catastrophic scale. And, your one power that could save your sweetheart, your friends, your colleagues, maybe even the whole planet, is the one power that you’ve allowed to atrophy. What would you do?

Practice and strengthen it back up, of course! There’s a lot at stake!

Empathy is the superpower that we’ve allowed to wilt. By not exercising our power of empathy, at work or at home, all of our relationships suffer. You may not connect with your colleagues, your bosses, or your customers. That creates a breakdown in how we interact with one another, how we solve problems and make decisions. Business limps along through sheer force of will, but it doesn’t prosper and flourish. Lack of empathy is turning into our very own form of kryptonite.

At Ignite 360 we take the empathy crisis seriously. As insights professionals, we are experts in how to build, maintain and transfer empathy between consumers and clients. As empathy experts, we’re committed to helping people strengthen their own empathy superpower.

The Empathy Origin Story

Just as every superhero has an origin story, so too does empathy.

We are born with two types of empathy – cognitive and affective. Cognitive Empathy is about taking someone else’s perspective (e.g. “I see your point of view”). Affective Empathy is the ability to feel other people’s emotions as them (e.g. Having a ‘heart to heart’ with a close friend, possibly over a break-up or a death).

For our purposes, it’s cognitive empathy that you need to keep your eye on.

In the workplace, cognitive empathy is the skill we really need to strengthen and master. Affective empathy is powerful and has its place, but emotions can actually cloud decision making. Additionally, not everyone is equipped to connect to others emotions. Some people who are highly empathic have difficulty processing the emotions they are receiving. Focusing on the cognitive will enable you to better connect and communicate in most situations.

The Empathy Crisis At Work

Our ability to empathize, both cognitively and affectively, is in serious decline. A study from the University of Michigan found college students post 2001 have 40% less empathy than their older predecessors dating as far back as 1979. The ability to empathize remains with us but is weaker than previous generations. The study suggests self-directed technology and media as well as self-validating social media for some of the decline. The lack of free time to get bored as kids is also seen as a barrier to forming empathy-building skills.

Since empathy is something we carry with us 24/7, that decline can’t help but seep into the workplace.

An empathy breakdown at work might feel like this: You are at a cross-functional meeting. The project you are all working on is at risk of not launching on time. Your role happens to be the one that’s causing the possible delay. Except you have what you consider are very valid reasons for the delay. You make your case, providing detail and rationale on why slowing down will create a better product or enable better safety. The project manager, instead of expressing that they see your point of view, dictates a decision or applies pressure to make the launch happen on time. Your point of view is not taken into consideration. You leave the meeting feeling demoralized, undervalued, not heard. You might be able to let this one time roll off your back but over time, this lack of validation through empathy can lead you to listen when the headhunter calls about your next move.

Here’s how you can take action right now.

Build and Apply Empathy at Work in 5 Steps

Step 1: Dismantle Judgment

If you can’t get beyond your desire to judge, you will have a hard time building empathy. Judgment is like a brick wall that we can’t see past. We can’t climb over it either. We have to dismantle judgment in order to see and hear people for who they are.

Judgment is made up of stereotypes, assumptions and bias, often from past experiences. It may be confirmation or projection bias or even cognitive dissonance. You have to recognize your judgment and break it down so you can move beyond it.

Consider the statement, “I’ll get back to you in a bit.” What do you consider to be ‘a bit’? Now ask a few colleagues the same question but don’t reveal your answer. Once you’ve gathered the answers of a few people, you’ll notice they differ from each other. It’s your assumption, a form of judgment, that leads you to presume your answer to the question is the one with which everyone agrees.

Your empathy opportunity: In our earlier workplace example, the project manager “dictates a decision or applies pressure to make the launch happen on time. Your point of view is not taken into consideration.” That is an empathy failure. There is clearly a wall up, its bricks composed of deadlines and other managers breathing down the project manager’s neck as well as past experiences and other biases. You might have your own judgment up. Perhaps a bad past experience with that project manager or a sense of knowing the routines of your partners that will inevitably lead to the delay. Both sides need to dismantle judgment in order to begin to hear what the other side is saying and work toward a resolution that brings the project in on time.

Step 2: Ask Good Questions

A common mistake people make is not asking open questions. If a question can be answered with a “yes/no” or a short answer, it is not going to elicit the kind of foundational, exploratory information that you need to build empathy. A point of view isn’t understood with a ‘yes/no’ – you need more information than that.

Which of these questions is open and which is closed?

“Do you prefer an office with a door or an open floor plan?”

“What do you think of our new office space?”

The second question is open – it allows the respondent to elaborate and share their point of view. Ask good questions in order to get great answers.

Your empathy opportunity: Going back to the workplace scenario, what if the people in the meeting asked open questions. “What do you think is holding up delivery?” instead of “why is it late?” The first is a more open approach, the second is challenging and pointed. Open questions lead to more productive conversations. So ask good questions.

Step 3: Actively Listen

Even with your judgment dismantled and primed with good questions, you must listen actively. This goes beyond just what you hear. You ‘listen’ with all of your senses. Reading body language, looking at the environment, observing the smells that are present. All of those combine into a holistic form of ‘listening.’

The next time you are speaking with someone, notice how their body language adjusts during the conversation. Are they sitting forward, nodding, engaged with you? Or are they sitting back with arms crossed? That’s an indication they are closed to what you are hearing. Eye contact is another one to look out for. Are the eyes on you or is eye contact broken when they are answering your question?

And of course, don’t forget to listen with your ears.

Your empathy opportunity: In the workplace example, the project manager wasn’t in a space to actively listen. S/he was looking to ‘knock heads’ and get the project in on time. That means what you were presenting wasn’t being heard. The question is, did you actively listen? Was your body language closed? Were you paying attention to the non-verbal cues being expressed?

Step 4: Integrate into Understanding

Now that you’ve cleared the pathway for another person’s expression to reach you, its time to pivot and convert that into thought and make sense of it. You might also think of this as the point where you start to step into someone else’s shoes.

Ask yourself these four questions…

“What did I hear?”

“What does it mean?”

“What does that feel like if I were them?”

“How would that inform my opinions if I were them?”

As you contemplate your answers, push yourself to keep their perspective as your own. This is easier said than done. Hold on to what they told you, how it made you feel, and what it meant to you, and then imagine if it was you that was saying it.

Your empathy opportunity: In the workplace example, you have an opportunity to appreciate the pressure the project manager is under. The manager knows that if s/he misses this deadline there will be financial repercussions for the company. What would that feel like for you if you were the manager?

Step 5: Use Solution Imagination

Now that you have established empathy with someone, you will want to carry forward the idea of being in their shoes. Continue to imagine what that is like. How would you respond to and problem solve a situation with their point of view in mind?

One of the simplest ways to communicate your newfound, cognitive empathy skill is to say “I see your point of view…” You can also reiterate a key point or piece of information that you heard. Then you can navigate toward a solution that respects their position but also creates a win for you.

As you get into the habit of starting your sentences with “I see your point of view”, you will notice that that it starts to feels disingenuous and awkward not to have their point of view while you speak.

Your empathy opportunity: Back to our earlier example, let’s assume you have taken on the project manager’s perspective. You have integrated into understanding what it must feel like to have the deadline and financial pressures. Now consider what you might say to them. What would a solution that is a win-win look like? How would you offer that solution? You might say, “I see your point of view, that by missing the deadline we lose goodwill with our customers and that could cost us more than the overtime charges we are facing.” And then offer an olive-branch and say, “What’s a compromise solution that might minimize the overtime costs but enable us to meet the deadline?”

Instead of a ‘my way or the highway’ approach, you build empathy with the project manager and exhibit your own leadership skill by connecting to his/her POV, offering your own POV, and then seeking a solution that works for everyone.

You’ve read about how to build and apply the 5 Steps to Empathy. Now what?

Restoring that atrophied superpower to its full strength is going to take practice.

IMMERSE Yourself in Empathy Skills