Making Sense of Empathy
“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” - Theodore Roosevelt
It is Human to have Empathy
Think of a difficult time or situation in your life when someone really understood you or connected with how you felt. How did this impact your experience? And how did this affect your relationship with this person?
I have been fortunate to have some highly empathetic people in my life. In difficult times, it is especially comforting to have someone who understands you at the heart level or who has been through a similar experience. In our hurried world, we sometimes jump right past the emotional piece and into the fixing or solutions piece. Being empathetic with each other acknowledges our humanness. It allows us to grow from our experiences in a holistic way.
Empathy begins with an awareness of people as emotional beings. You understand or even begin to experience how they feel, in a situation. You imagine being them and understand their unique perspective. You may feel their pain or experience their joy. Empathy is to understand people at a heart level. Being empathic with others demonstrates you care.
Impact of Empathy on Business Results
Daniel Pink, author of “A Whole New Mind” predicts that as we move from a largely left-brain dominated knowledge age into a strong right-brain conceptual age, power will shift to those who have developed six new senses. He suggests that one of these senses, empathy, will be vital to building relationships, difficult to outsource or automate and increasingly important to business around the globe.
There are studies that correlate empathy with increased sales and enhanced performance in an increasingly diverse workforce. Empathy is a powerful quality in building trusting relationships with your clients as you understand their needs on a deeper level. Empathetic leaders put their people’s feelings top of mind along with other factors in making key business decisions.
Impact of Empathy on People & Culture
Empathetic leaders understand that people have a basic need to feel connected, appreciated, and understood. It is more important than ever to build a culture where people feel they belong. Acknowledgment and appreciation of your team member’s feelings goes a long way in building a strong culture.
Stickiness is the degree to which your people feel adhesion to others in your firm. It is cultivated on a foundation of caring, connection and empathy. When leaders take a personal interest in their people, they feel cared for, understood and safe. Understanding of people on this personal level creates an opening for exploring their unique motivators, strengths and abilities. It also increases collaboration, creativity and productivity on your teams.
Exercising your Empathy Muscle
Some people are very good at considering others’ needs and concerns. For others imagining how someone else feels may be more difficult and seem foreign. The good news is that we all can improve our ability to empathize with people. Here are some practical ways to exercise and increase your empathy muscle.
Listen for Understanding
Listen with the sole purpose of understanding the meaning behind what others are saying. Avoid thinking about your own response. One way to do this is to practice reflecting the feelings and content of another’s communication back to them. Listen with your ears, eyes and heart. Pay attention to others' body language, to their tone of voice, pace of speech, facial expressions, and gestures. The emotion expressed may be more important than the words that they speak.
Be fully present when you are with people. Face them directly, make eye contact and give them your full attention. Don't check your email, look at your watch or take phone calls. If you need to move to a quiet space without noise or distractions, do so. Put yourself in their shoes. Doing these things will demonstrate their significance to you.
Actively engage with people and let them know that you are interested in their story. Ask them questions that show your genuine curiosity about their lives. Ask them about their achievements, challenges, hobbies, talents and aspirations. Learn about their families and other important people who have shaped their lives.
Look for opportunities to recognize the efforts and results of others. Pay attention to what people are doing and catch them doing the right things. Praise is most effective when it is given timely and for a specific accomplishment or experience. Recognition is one of the greatest motivators, yet surprisingly overlooked as a tool for enhancing future performance.
Celebrate Together - Empathy is just as much about celebrating success and other joyful experiences together. Feeling the joy experienced in the lives of people we care about is one of the great rewards in developing our empathy muscle.
A powerful approach to get into someone else’s shoes is to become a volunteer. As a volunteer you have a unique opportunity to share your experience, skills, knowledge, interests, abilities or talents with others. You will receive the joy of giving of yourself and will gain a deeper understanding of other people’s lives from their perspective.