What is Empathy?
This is the second part of the article by Jim Harden from Greystone Consulting, begun in the previous post:
Empathy can be defined as the ability to see things from the other person’s point of view—to be able to “walk in someone else’s moccasins.” Goleman defines it as the ability to read other people. Other definitions include the concept of identifying with the other person or their situation. This implies more than a cognitive understanding, more than just remembering a similar situation that you may have gone through yourself. Empathy means that you can recall some of those same feelings based on your own memories. There is a sharing and identifying with emotional states.
What does this have to do with running a business, managing a company and dealing with bottom-line performance issues? Obviously, if managers were to take the time to listen with empathy at everything that was said, nothing would get done. Furthermore, one cannot fall prey to being swept up into every person’s story. Managers and leaders must keep the focus and guide people to goal completion.
According to Goleman, empathy represents the foundation skill for all the social competencies important for work:
1. Understanding others: sensing others’ feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns
2. Service orientation: anticipating, recognizing and meeting customers’ needs
3. Developing others: sensing others’ development needs and bolstering their abilities
4. Leveraging diversity: cultivating opportunities through diverse people
5. Political awareness: reading the political and social currents in an organization
Managers and leaders are usually high in those traits and characteristics that lead to successful goal completion, such as high achievement orientation and high focusing abilities. That’s why they get promoted to managing positions. Success depends a great deal on having focus, being able to persevere, and being able to concentrate. But focus alone can result in undesirable consequences if not counterbalanced by empathy. Focus alone will not result in the fulfillment of goals. Focus and empathy will.
Empathy skills are those that involve paying attention to other people- things like listening, attending to needs and wants of others, and building relationships. When empathy skills are high, one is more likely to inspire the troops. When a manager understands his/her people and communicates that to them, he/she is more liked and respected. And that is how practicing empathy results in better performance. When a manager is respected, the people they lead are more likely to go the extra mile. Empathy and focus need to be balanced, and when they are, managing skills are optimally effective.
Both managers and employees need empathy in order to interact well with customers, suppliers, the general public and with each other. Managers need it even more when they are assigning a task to someone who won’t like it; when offering criticism to someone who predictably will get defensive; when having to deal with someone we don’t like; when dealing with employee disputes; and when giving bad news such as telling someone that they won’t be promoted or that they’re being laid off. The first step in dealing with any negativity is to empathize. The next step is to focus back to the goals and the tasks at hand.
When someone comes to you with negative feedback, what is the first thing you think to yourself?
1. Here we go again. Another annoying complainer. This is a waste of my time.
2. I’m going to sit here and pretend to listen to this and then give them the facts on their latest performance measures.
3. Why can’t he/she pay attention to the really important issues, like getting this project completed on time?
4. Why is this an issue? I need to get more information.
5. What is this person really saying here? Or, rather, what is not being said and maybe needs to be addressed?
The first response is one in which you are focusing on yourself and your needs. Responses #2 and #3 focus on the goals and needs of the organization. All of the first three responses are lacking in empathy. Response #4 focuses on the other person. And response #5 focuses on the other person and the organization. The last response shows the most empathy because it goes beyond what is being said.
At the outset empathy involves real curiosity and a desire to know or understand. There is a genuine interest in what the person is saying and feeling. You cannot have empathy without asking questions. Some typical ones are:
1. “Can you say more about that?”
2. “Really? That’s interesting. Can you be more specific?”
3. “I wasn’t aware of that. Tell me more.”
4. “I’m curious about that…let’s discuss this in more depth.”
5. “Let me see if I understand you correctly…here is what I hear you say…”
Managers and leaders who are high in empathy skills are able to pick up emotional cues. They can appreciate not only what a person is saying, but also why they are saying it. At the highest levels, they also understand where a person’s feelings might come from.
Those that do not have empathy have a tendency to misread the other person. They do not ask questions to clarify. They do not pay attention to nonverbal cues. Those people who are analytical by nature will listen to the words, facts and figures and completely miss the real message of what is being said. If we remember that only 7% of the message is carried in the words and the rest is in the non-verbal cues, then listening to the content of what is being said may actually be misleading.
How then to learn effective empathy if you are one of those task-oriented managers who is primarily focused on achievement? The good news is that your achievement orientation and focusing abilities will help you in acquiring empathy skills. The bad news is that it may not be natural at first. Fortunately, empathy is a learned capability and like other competencies, it can be acquired.