Have you ever suffered a breakdown in communication, or been less than persuasive, or rubbed someone the wrong way?
If you have, fear not. You need not resort to changing jobs or setting up your own business. All you need to do is develop some empathy.
What is empathy?
Empathy is simply putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.
When you make an effort to be aware and sensitive to the other person’s point of view, your understanding of his perspective becomes much clearer.
This clarity then allows you to respond empathically.
Without empathy, one may be inclined to use one’s emotional intelligence in a controlling and self-centred manner.
In the field of psychotherapy, 60 years of studies have proved that communicating empathy is a major influencing factor in providing therapeutic relationships between the therapist and the client.
Today, more organisations are adopting empathy training to help employees use empathy effectively in the workplace. The idea that empathy is “touchy-feely” has gone out the door.
Why is empathy needed at work?
We often read of senior executives of public-listed companies whose careers are held back by their lack of people skills.
Mr Robert Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss: How To Be The Best…And Learn From The Worst, pointed out that bosses often suffer from three deadly sins: lack of inhibition; obliviousness and disregard; and hubris, or excessive pride.
He cited the example of a former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard who brought discipline to the company, cut costs and boosted earnings, but his demeaning attitude hurt morale.
According to Mr Sutton, when you treat people poorly, don’t mistake praise for affection; they are waiting to help you commit suicide.
Empathy can help you with many everyday tasks at work:
1. Manage uncertainty and ambiguity
When faced with uncertainty and ambiguity at the workplace, try to see the issues from the other person’s point of view.
That will help you to tap the possibilities of the different perspectives for the success of the enterprise.
2. Connect with internal and external customers
If you fail to empathise with your customers, you will never understand their underlying motivation and their needs for your services and products.
The old saying still holds true that the customer’s decision to support a proposal or idea, or to buy something, is largely based on his emotions rather than logic. If you appeal to someone on a strictly logical basis, you will have little chance of connecting with him.
3. Manage conflict
Authors Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, who wrote The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It, highlighted that executives of Fortune 1000 companies spent an average of seven weeks a year resolving employee conflicts. Incivility in the workplace is lowering productivity and raising job stress and employee turnover.
The conflict is often due to misunderstanding and miscommunication. Responding with empathy shows a positive regard for the other person. Although many people feel empathy for others, the truth is that few know how to put an empathic response into words. If you empathise more, you communicate more clearly.
4. Handle negotiations
One of the world’s leading negotiation specialists, Mr William Ury, in his book Getting Past No, makes the point that every human being has a deep need for his feelings to be recognised.
Applying empathy skills allows you to understand the underlying needs of the other party. Knowing this can help in a difficult negotiation and is likely to create conditions for a win-win outcome.
5. Manage your boss
Organisational hierarchies (or their lack) often leave many employees feeling frustrated.
Yet, bosses who are under pressure to maximise the bottom line or meet their key performance goals continue to play their respective roles with formal authority.
Employees are likely to feel that they are being micro-managed or not managed at all. They feel powerless.
Your position in an organisation and the power it gives you may not be enough to influence others, especially your boss.
However, you can still manage your boss by empathically thinking of your boss’s daily challenges.
With empathy and anticipation, you can help to deal with your boss’s concerns.
For example, you can ask yourself: “What is it that the boss is trying to achieve? Why does he ask for so much information? Why is he procrastinating over the ‘no-brainer’ decision?”
In the process, you may discover opportunities without getting frustrated or hung up on hierarchy or feeling powerless.
This indirect power and influence that you develop then becomes unlimited, regardless of your position in the organisation. This is the effectiveness of empathy.
On the other hand, if you see your boss as controlling, micro-managing and possessing a lack of vision, you are likely to feel discontented and miserable.
Author Stephen Covey of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People pointed out that every time we think there is a problem out there, that very thought is the problem.
Instead, focus on the things which you can influence, and you will then become a boss in any situation.