Empathy is in short supply these days. Ironically, this shortage is happening at a time when we need it most.
From the ongoing political and election news coverage to the emergence of ‘empathy’ as a marketing buzzword, people are clamoring for empathy.
But what does empathy really mean? What does it offer? How do you get it? And then, what do you do with it?
All good questions.
Short answer: Empathy is important to your personal and professional bottom line, but there is no ‘quick fix’ solution.
Empathy is not like your new tech device or toy that you open, ignore the manual and start using right away. Empathy is a skill that takes awareness of how it works and practice to get it to work for you. However, people like to jump straight to the solutions and successful outcomes that empathy can create, yet empathy refuses to work that way.
While we can’t stop you from tossing the empathy manual aside, we can show you where the empathy ‘on/off’ switch is so nothing blows up in your face. Consider this your ‘Quick Start Guide to Empathy.’
5 Ways To Boot Up Your Empathy
1. Know that You Are Born Empathetic.
Just like your five senses, humans are born with the ability to establish empathy with others. It's a gift that we all have. You just have to remember how to use it and when.
2. Recognize that Empathy Is Scarce.
So make the most of your empathy skills. College Students Have 40% Less Empathy Since 2001. A University of Michigan study found in a meta-analysis that between 2001-2009, college students have 40% less empathy than their peers from 1979-2000.
3. Understand that There Are 2 Types of Empathy – Cognitive and Affective.
Cognitive is the ability to take someone else’s perspective as your own and to see their point of view. Affective empathy is the ability to feel someone else’s emotions as they are feeling them.
4. Focus Your Attention on Cognitive Empathy – not everyone can comfortably ‘go deep’ and feel someone else’s emotions.
Seeing someone else’s point of view is much easier and more achievable. In the workplace, and in many personal relationships, it’s cognitive empathy that leads to more productive conversations, better critical thinking, and rigorous problem solving. You’ve got to be able to say “I see your point of view” and mean it. This then, leads to better products and services, and helps your company thrive.
5. Take the 5 Steps to Empathy
To rebuild your empathy super power, you need to follow these steps: Dismantle Judgment, Ask Good Questions, Actively Listen, Integrate Into Understanding, Use Solution Imagination.
Turn Your Empathy To “On” Mode At Work
Rebuilding your empathy strength will take time. Give yourself permission to fail and make mistakes. Then try again. As they say, practice makes perfect. Here are 3 examples you can immediately apply in your workplace.
Example 1: There Goes the Deadline
Imagine you are a product manager. Your job is to coordinate the cross-functional team to bring a project to fruition. A deadline had been set. All eyes, particularly senior leadership, are looking to you to bring this project in on time. Then, a member of the cross-functional team tells you there’s a problem and it won’t be ready in time. How do you respond?
WITHOUT EMPATHY: You could yell and scream and pound your fist on the table while you berate the team member. What type of outcome will that achieve? You might beat them into submission but is it going to motivate them? No. It will scare them in the short term and in the long term you risk having a dissatisfied employee.
WITH EMPATHY: What if you heard them out. What prompted the delay? When did they find out? What kept them from saying something sooner? What could a possible solution look like? While you are taking the time to hear them out and see their point of view, you also have an opportunity to present your point of view - to help them understand why this is important to the company. And then, you are in a safer, more open place to collaborate and find a solution. In this case there might be a half-way point where some of the project can be completed on time at a slightly greater expense with more of it to follow shortly thereafter. This way you are able to deliver on the project timing without causing significant disruption or economic hardship to the company. By seeing and understanding the point of view of the team member, you are using cognitive empathy to help forge a solution. Good job!
Example 2: The Customer Wants What???
A high-functioning empathic organization will be able to consider the needs of the consumer first (or customer, we’re using it interchangeably here). Customer needs drive the product designs, services, and solutions brought to market. Perhaps you’ve been in a situation where you hear the customer requests a new solution from your organization. How do you respond?
WITHOUT EMPATHY: You’ve been working at your company a long time and the company has been doing what it’s been doing for even longer. How could the customer know what they want from you? You know your business. You know what you do best. They need to take what you offer them. How do you think your customer is going to respond to that? They might stay with you, but you are eroding the bond and trust that you have with them. At some point they are going to leave you.
WITH EMPATHY: While you’ve been at your company a long time, you recognize that there are always new ways of doing things and room for improvement. You get on the phone or better yet, meet with the customer. At that meeting, you hear them out on what their request is. What are they looking for? How will that help them? What role will it play in their business? How many of those might they order? Asking these questions and listening to the answers will help you build cognitive empathy. You take their point of view, consider what they are asking for, how it will help them, and how you can help them achieve their goals. In the end, you might be able to make a new product that your company can sell for years to come, all because you took the time to see their point of view.
Example 3: Starting a Relationship
Business partnerships between two companies are like a relationship you might have with a girlfriend or boyfriend. You start with a first date/meeting. That initial conversation will determine if there is interest in taking it further. First dates are always nerve-racking. How do you behave? What do you have to do to make a good first impression?
WITHOUT EMPATHY: Tell them how great you are. Why you are the best. Why they should partner with you and what they are going to get out of it. Think of it as a transactional relationship and that’s all it will be. A cheap and not very meaningful relationship. Soon you’ll be wanting more from another potential partner.
WITHOUT EMPATHY: Start with listening. Ask them questions about themselves and their company. Hear what they are saying and ask more questions based on their answers. Then, when it’s your turn, consider how you might be able to help them. See their point of view. What is it about your company that will be worthwhile for them? Make it a win-win situation. You may find this is the start of a long-lasting relationship.
In each of these examples, cognitive empathy plays a critical role in the outcome. Taking someone’s perspective doesn’t mean you lose sight of you own. Instead, it broadens your field of vision, enables new solutions, and helps everyone make stronger decisions. That can yield big returns in business growth.
Give this Quick Start guide a try. When you’re ready to take it to the next level, learn how to apply empathy at work with Empathy Camp™.