Empathy, a life skill
You are told that you lack empathy or are insensitive to others. Perhaps this spurs you on to realize this skill is important if you want to lead teams or projects. Empathy is a skill which, like any other, is learned and needs practice.
At its core, empathy is the ability to recognize emotions in other people and to understand their perspective on a situation. Empathy can empower you to uplift another’s mood, frame of mind or to support them through a challenging moment.
Why does this matter? Quite simply, in business if you can understand the emotions of others then you have the ability to resolve conflicts, build more productive teams, and improve your relationships with colleagues, customers or anyone really. Of course, the skill is equally valuable in personal relationships!
Let’s use an example to illustrate. Imagine that you are in a meeting with three leaders from sales, finance, operations and yourself from the legal team. You’re all gathered to hear important sales news. Acme customer wants to increase their purchases by 50% starting in four days and running for the next 12 months. The CEO is happy with the sales win, but enthusiasm in the meeting quickly wanes. The operations team has no idea how they are going to ramp up to meet the manufacturing and supply increase so quickly. Your team (legal) is already juggling several other customer contract negotiations. And, finance foresees resource constraints because of this customer’s special invoicing needs. In that moment, the sales leader testily answers: “Well, you’ll all need to make it happen or you can explain to the CEO why you failed to deliver on the company’s largest sales win this year!”
The sales leader’s response lacked empathy. Why? What should the approach have been?
Stages of empathy
There are three stages of empathy according to psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman:
- Cognitive: ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking
- Emotional: ability to share the feelings of another person
- Compassionate: goes beyond simply understanding others and sharing their feelings: it actually moves us to take action, to help however we can
Using the earlier example, let’s see how this might play out when practicing empathy.
Cognitive – the sales leader would be thinking about what each of the functional leaders is going through. What are their pressure points? What has been tried to alleviate them? How might their team change as a result of this customer transaction?
Emotional – the sales leader is tapping into themselves for a relatable memory or experience when resource constraints severely tax the ability to deliver! Connecting with this relatable experience would allow the sales leader to feel as each functional leader likely feels.
Compassionate – now the sales leader is driven to take action. S/he might offer to fund additional contractor resources for the special billing processes needed, or to cover the costs from his budget to outsource contract negotiation for the amendment or offer sales support resources into operations to help cover the temporary peak in demand.
Let’s come back to the example and see how an empathetic response results in better relationships and outcomes.
Rather than a testy answer, what if s/he said:
“Folks, I know you are each facing unique resource challenges. Let’s talk through each one and see what we can do as a team to alleviate the pressure points.”
This simple opening approach would have unlocked goodwill in each participant to start finding a solution together.
Putting empathy into action
Next time you are struggling to understand where the other person is coming from, keep the following things in mind:
- You never have a complete picture, no matter how well you know someone. Each person deals with many events, factors and circumstances which we’re unaware of.
- Your view about a situation may be quite different and influenced by many things, including your mood right now!
- When dealing with emotional stress events, you could well behave in a very different way than you expected you would.
By remembering these simple points, you will be more open to the view of the other person. That in turn will influence how you deal with them. In reality, each of us goes through our own struggle at some point. So, it’s just a matter of time before we need this level of understanding ourselves.
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