Empathy is one of the truly hard soft skills to develop but used authentically it can be one of the most effective in your portfolio. Being empathetic can not only accelerate the process of building trust with another person but also enable you to achieve your desired goals more quickly.
However, it shouldn’t be confused as just being nice because it’s so much more than that.
So what is empathy ?
Empathy is about understanding someone else’s world; what they are thinking, feeling and needing. It is about learning about their situation and motivation and the phrase ‘being in their shoes‘ is both a popular and accurate description.
Sometimes being empathetic involves being more polite, generous, respectful and even nicer than you might normally be, but those qualities are just a byproduct rather than the main feature.
For most people being empathetic is unnatural to begin with and trying to think like someone else does involve stretching your comfort zone.
What are the benefits to you ?
In being empathetic you can achieve much greater insight and clarity about any given situation and this understanding of the whole landscape and the various options available, should enable you to make more informed and favourable decisions. A decision or behaviour that enables both sides to benefit usually creates a more trusting relationship that often achieves better long term outcomes.
There are many work situations where this can be beneficial all round. In meetings being empathetic and able to understand what is more or less important to the others present, helps you to better decide where you should make concessions or hold your ground. If a negotiation is involved, your empathetic approach can either help you ‘win‘ in negotiations, or reach the best ‘win-win‘ outcome for both sides.
Similarly, in a sales situation understanding the needs of the other side helps you find an ideal solution for them. Occasionally you may not have the solution, meaning you don’t make the sale or achieve your goal, but if you have secured greater trust and rapport that will usually be of benefit over the long term.
Similarly using empathy when working within a team to understand the perspectives, situations and motivations of your colleagues will help you more accurately predict their actions and reactions. This in turn helps build consistency trust, and more effective teamwork.
How to develop your empathy
There are different ways to empathise so it’s important to find a style that feels natural for you as you will then appear much more genuine, authentic and believable. Over time being genuinely empathetic will become a natural part of who you are and what you do.
Some common themes to help you:
Set yourself the goal to understand feelings as well as facts
If you can understand how someone is feeling as well as how they are thinking, ie emotionally and logically you are well on the way to anticipating how they might behave because ‘head and heart’ are the drivers to behaviour. You will use questions like ‘How are you feeling?’, ‘How would that make you feel?’, ‘How did you feel when that happened?’
Learn to listen
There is always the temptation in meetings or conversations to trade points of view and information like a game of verbal tennis. Often we’re waiting our turn to speak rather than really listening to the words we are hearing and so are rarely considering the motivation and situation behind them. In doing so we forgo an opportunity to gain an advantage. Slow down and learn to listen to what is being said and then respond with follow up questions to better understand the feelings as well as the facts behind the individual.
Learn to understand another point of view
This involves some mental gymnastics because we are more often focused on controlling a situation or conversation by projecting our own views. This control helps us satisfy our own situation and motivation. In our world we are almost always in the right about everything. However if you are having a disagreement with someone it is time to imagine the entire situation from their point of view. Try and understand why they feel the way they do about the situation and about your responses. What are they feeling tense and defensive about? What are their arguments about your views and handling of the situation and are they valid? What good intentions and positive motivations do they hold?
This does mean stepping back and initially, ceding control by understanding the other point of view rather than just enforcing your own. It is an outwards-in approach rather than the more natural inwards out.
Make this your default position
Over time you could make this approach your default position by always considering both or all points of view as a complete package. Are there elements of all views that together form the ideal solution and which could form the basis for a compromise. Perhaps start there and work your way back to your own situation and preferred outcome.
Empathising when you aren’t used to the process can be difficult. Often it means putting to one side your ego and potentially compromising when you don’t want to, especially if you are feeling stressed and under pressure. In this state it can be difficult to continue to listen and ask questions with an open mind.
When all else fails try using this one question:
What do you think would be the ideal outcome?
This ultimate empathy question allows you to understand where everyone is coming from and hopefully then be the common connection needed to keep everyone pulling together towards a shared goal. Learning to empathise can be unnatural and difficult to start with but once mastered it is a great skill because it can unlock a world of knowledge and advantage.
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