Empathy is a very important skill. It helps us develop deep levels of rapport and trust, both of which are vital for the success of our relationships as well as our interactions in the workplace. Having poor empathy skills can lead to unnecessary conflict born out of misunderstandings.
In business, the key component to our success is understanding the needs of our clients, patients, customers or staff. If we don’t focus on ‘putting ourselves in their shoes’, we will make catastrophic mistakes which can lead to failure.
The dictionary describes empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”.
Understanding the importance of empathy and employing those skills are two different things. It is only when we act with true empathy that we can create connections that are long lasting and real.
There are some instances where acting with empathy can feel overwhelming. It is important to learn how to balance our empathy for others with the need to take care of ourselves or we will burn out completely.
So what can we do to build empathy skills and improve our relationships with those around us?
Pay Close Attention
This might seem like a no-brainer but in truth, we are often so distracted by our mobile devices, what is showing on the television or our need to tell our own story, that we don’t really notice what someone is telling us. Just because you hear the words someone is saying, doesn’t mean you’ve heard them. Improving your listening skills will help you pay more attention to others and allow you to pick up on the emotions behind the words.
A great way to raise your ability to pay attention is to watch television with the sound off. In this way you can watch the interplay of emotions between the various characters and learn to pick up cues which will help you follow the story.
Distance Yourself From Stereotypes And Find Commonalities
We all have pre-conceived ideas about others based on the media, our peers and our own observations. But when it comes to individual interactions, we must put those aside and find a way to connect with others.
The best way to build a connection is to meet people where they are. Everyone has a story and if you take the time to listen, you might be surprised at what you discover. Sometimes the people we understand the least have the most to teach us.
Agree to Disagree
There may be occasions when you don’t agree with someone else’s view of a specific situation but where you can nonetheless recognise that empathy is required. This is particularly important when somebody is having a strong emotion and asking you to do something you can’t do.
Sometimes all that’s required is to listen and convey what is called cognitive empathy. It is possible to be authentically empathetic to show you understand what they are experiencing without having to agree.
Learn How To Respond
It can be very difficult to know what to say in response to someone, and to determine when to keep quiet and when to speak. Learning how to respond takes practice but a good rule of thumb is to simply acknowledge their feelings without giving advice. This is a hard one but the art of empathy is largely about ensuring that someone feels heard.
Practice saying statements such as, ‘I’m sorry this happened to you’. Say it several times to yourself in the mirror so that you can see the expression on your face when you speak. Watch empathetic leaders to listen to the tone of voice they use as well as their facial expressions.
In order to truly connect with others, we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable and potentially show emotion in response to theirs. It is not enough to put on a face or modulate your tone of voice. Empathy is conveyed through feeling rather than the words we use.
Strengthen Your Connection With Yourself
It is impossible to show empathy to others if you don’t have a strong connection with yourself first. As you show empathy to yourself, you will develop the ability to truly connect with other people’s emotions in a way that adds kindness, compassion and understanding to their situation.
Think about times when you have faced a difficult situation and what you might have needed at that time. Did your friends and family show empathy? What did that look like? What made you feel supported or unsupported? If you felt unsupported, what empathy did you show to yourself that helped you overcome your own difficulties? As you explore this, you will begin to put together a clear picture of how empathy can help others.
Empathy is a multi-faceted skill that will require practice and the ability to be flexible. Not everyone will want the same response from you so it’s important to be able to recognise subtle nuances in someone’s posture, facial expressions and tone of voice. And it’s just as important to become aware of the time when even though someone seems to be emotional, they may not wish to interact with you.