Empathy is a vast concept. Stretching beyond skill, it is an inherent capability with which we are born. The concept is so huge that we may not know how to tackle it in a business context, despite having access to hundreds of articles on the subject.
When our business is just trying to survive, or we are making do with fewer staff, and we don’t know how to win the next customer, we may find it hard to employ what we think of as empathy. A question we might have is, why are we talking about empathy when our major emotion is fear?
The truth is that now may be the very best time for empathy, when all around us are fearful.
Maybe you think that if you dip too deeply into empathy, you’ll be overcome by emotion, which won’t help the business. This is a common concern. What we really want is to be able to feel another person’s pain but remain in control of our own emotions, which is called compassionate empathy. We want to understand, but also have personal boundaries. Perhaps you think you aren’t good at understanding what others are feeling, so why try. You could make things worse. Maybe you are only comfortable with what is called cognitive empathy – being able to put yourself in someone else’s place and see their perspective, staying out of emotions. This approach is useful in many instances, but not when a deeper understanding is needed.
As human beings, we cannot be whole or authentic without experiencing empathy. And the future holds so much uncertainty right now that empathy is a requirement.
For businesses, this will be vital to success. The following quote from a previous blog post about General Stanley McCrystal’s leadership describes empathy as essential for building influence and trust.
“Empathy, the capacity to see things from someone else’s perspective and see oneself from someone else’s perspective, is his second skill and is also crucial to good leadership. Self-discipline and empathy are central to building the influence and trust necessary for others to follow. Being able to make a good presentation and one’s physical posture, along with other qualities, are part of leadership but are not vital.”
Prudy Gourguechon, in Forbes, has a cognitive description of the benefit of cognitive empathy in business for predictions, tactics and communication.
“Essentially, empathy is a neutral data gathering tool that enables you to understand the human environment within which you are operating in business and therefore make better predictions, craft better tactics, inspire loyalty and communicate clearly.”
A bigger benefit of empathy in the workplace is emotional: employee engagement. As humans, we need and want to be seen and heard by those around us, to be psychologically touched by those who are important in our daily lives. We want our presence to matter and have meaning. We want to feel essential to the team, workgroup, or company.
And we want our work to have meaning. When we talk about being seen, heard, touched and having meaning, and being essential, we are talking about emotion! In our businesses, we have gone well beyond the assembly line employees of the industrial revolution and into the fully human employees.
So in today’s world, and with Covid, what does it take to have appropriate emotional empathy, or compassionate empathy?
We provide the best kind of support to others when we have both self-control and are able to feel someone else’s pain. We can have sympathy and be rational at the same time. It takes practice, and the capacity needs to be built. This requires listening deeply to others – to listen to the meaning and emotion of others and feel what is meant. It involves becoming more self-aware, and fits into the category of emotional intelligence. It may mean reading some of the hundreds of books and articles written about emotional intelligence to gain more understanding of the concept.
It means paying attention to the tone and words we use. I find myself using the Spanish word gracias even though I’m not a Spanish speaker because it is softer sounding and tends to activate sensation around my heart more than the clipped words thank you.