The concept of empathy continues to play an ever greater role in the world of business, rather than being confined to our personal lives. Showing empathy means displaying and understanding shared feelings with other human beings on an emotional, rather than purely intellectual level. It’s clearly easier to convey emotion among friends and family than at work, but nonetheless, empathy is gaining in prominence in the professional world. From the way that bosses deal with their employees, through to communication within teams or dealing with contracts and sales pitches, people who express themselves with empathy have a much greater chance of making others sit up and take notice. Despite this, power, assertiveness and professionalism were seen for years as the primary qualities needed for success, to such an extent that it can be difficult to switch between different management styles and structures.
In principle, it’s actually not hard to act with empathy because it is human nature to care about other people. “People like to make others feel better, when they’re given the freedom to act voluntarily” (Brüggemeier, 2010). The key word here is “voluntarily”: empathy does not mean accepting anything and everything with a positive outlook, showing understanding for any absurd proposition, or letting other people get away with murder. People who show empathy have more than just the ability to observe other people; it is just as important that they can come to terms with themselves and their own feelings, and that they can listen to their own intuition, asking “is this right for me, and am I doing this voluntarily?” Only by knowing their own emotions, appreciating them, and acting accordingly, can people generate empathy for others. Our tips will help you to act in a more empathetic and effective manner.
Tips for more empathy
Use active listening techniques
It sounds so easy, but it’s actually much harder than most people realize. If you spend your days under constant fire from co-workers and customers, it’s hardly surprising that you might catch your mind wandering during conversations. People notice, however, whether someone is truly interested in what they have to say. Active listening not only improves your perception, but also strengthens feelings of solidarity – because the more we know about someone else, even if it’s only a few trivial details from making small-talk, the closer we feel to that person, and this allows us to transform the feeling of closeness into genuine emotion.
Active listening is a step in the right direction, but to maintain conversation and convey empathy, contextual questioning is required. That shows that you are not just listening attentively, but are also considering what is being said in a wider context — precisely because you are interested in the person you are talking to. Our tip: when asking follow-up questions, refer to the person you are talking to by name, leading to a significantly greater feeling of being valued.
An important component of empathy is the ability to put yourselves in the shoes of others and experience the world from their emotional perspective. It makes a huge difference to be switch perspective from time to time in order to see things from another angle. If you have difficulties with rethinking things in this way, practice using movies or books. Characters in books and generally give a lot of insight into their inner thoughts, unlike our fellow “real” human beings, which makes it easier to appreciate their thoughts and actions.
Observe more consciously
We barely have the time to lean back and observe what is happening around us and how our fellow human beings act: however, that is precisely what we should be doing, for example on the subway, in the cafeteria or in our open plan offices. By observing, we automatically learn to recognize the little peculiarities that make each person an individual. “Thinking outside the box” gives us a better sense of people’s behavior in general, and that works best if we keep our eyes open and learn to understand people who come from backgrounds that are different than our own. Careful observation in our own workplace provides us with the opportunity to observe and borrow certain gestures, facial expressions and conversation styles of our coworkers, reflecting them next time we speak to them. This “mirroring” gives people an instinctive feeling of security and trust – the perfect basis on which to build mutual empathy.
Captivate large groups
Empathy also has a major role to play when delivering presentations: addressing your audience on an emotional, rather than purely intellectual basis, gives you a greater chance of sticking in their memory. Presenters who show their empathetic side come across as more authentic and more instantly likeable. However, as it is impossible to use active listening or questioning techniques to individuals in a large audience, the context requires a broad-brush approach. An excellent way to use empathy in this situation is to give true-to-life, vivid examples as the basis for your presentation. “Tell personal stories with conviction and describe not just what people did, but how they felt” (Duarte, 2012). By addressing people’s feelings, presenters prime their audience to relate the story to their own experiences, so that the audience not only feels involved, but experiences a collective sense of belonging. Empathy is something that can be practiced – and the more attention that you pay to interpersonal relations when communicating with others, the more natural it feels over time.
Empathy is evident not only in specific situations, but is reflected in the way people come across at all times. When compassion and questioning become second nature, it changes the way in which we communicate, convey knowledge, and address others. Always bear in mind: an empathetic approach not only makes other people happier –as people become more empathetic, they become happier, more balanced human beings. Source: Beate Brüggemeier, Wertschätzende Kommunikation im Business (“Appreciative communication in Business”), 2010 HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations, Nancy Duarte, 2012
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