Empathy in business, if it has gotten any attention at all, has typically been relegated to the realm of Human Resources. It gets glossed over in orientation and diversity training, and after that, it’s primarily a tool for conflict resolution. But more and more authorities in the business world are recognizing that empathy is a critical force that drives business forward. Let’s dive into the discussion on empathy in business!
What Does Empathy Mean?
Before we go any further, let’s stop and ask: what does empathy mean? For the purposes of this article, empathy means the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing. This is something that most people have, and it can be further developed. Empathy is not simply any emotional reaction to someone else’s experience. For instance, if you see someone fall and get hurt, one thing you might feel is pity toward them. However, you might also experience what that person is experiencing (pain).
Why Is Empathy Important?
The empathy we experience, or don’t, plays a large part in driving our interpersonal behavior. If you experience empathy for someone who is intensely happy, you may want to celebrate with them. If you see someone in pain, you may want to comfort them with a hug. This stems from the fact that empathy is relational at its core. It enables us to connect with others and, thus, to become more powerful than any individual. Think of how empowered a team can become when it is composed of empathetic individuals.
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Lack of Empathy
Aside from the team-building component of empathy, in order to really get a sense of why empathy is important in business, we must also consider what is lost in situations where empathy is inadequate. An individual lacking empathy is essentially in the dark in most interpersonal interactions. Without empathy, your understanding of what other people are experiencing is limited to a single dimension of the most literal, superficial signs. If you’ve read anything on the Iceberg Model, you know just how much of our commerce and culture is made up of nonverbal communication. Imagine an employee who cannot sense what their boss is trying to communicate, or a manager who cannot understand what their employees are really going through. A lack of empathy in business inhibits cooperation and teamwork. Ultimately, of course, this has an impact on the bottom-line.
Not only does the ability to empathize vary widely between people, but it also varies widely within individuals, depending on the situation. The nature and consequences of this variation are described by the concept of the Empathy Gap, also known as the “hot-cold empathy gap.” This describes a particular form of cognitive bias in which people in one affective state become less capable of detecting, understanding, or empathizing with someone in another affective state. For example, an enraged person finds it hard to understand a bemused person.
Researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, working at the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, helped design the Empathy Quotient, or Empathy Test. More of a questionnaire than a “test,” the Empathy Quotient consists of 60 statements with which you can Slightly or Strongly Agree or Disagree. This empathy test was largely designed for use in mental health scenarios, but many have found it useful across every conceivable social scenario. You can try it yourself, here.
Must-Have Empathy Skills
Empathy is not some mysterious concept you’re either born with or cursed to live without. There are some simple empathy skills you can develop to improve your own ability to empathize.
There is a deep equivalence between empathy and communication, and we deepen those capacities within ourselves when we pay attention to them. Getting better at empathy can start with something as simple as paying closer attention to the full spectrum of communication, verbal and non-verbal. When you do this, you are likely to pick up on informational signals that you missed before.
Self-Awareness & Emotional Intelligence
It seems that empathy is all about getting inside other people’s experiences, but it can start with ourselves. When we improve our understanding of the variety of forces underlying our thoughts, we enhance our ability to recognize others as being made up of that same level of complexity.
Withholding judgment seems like a moral prescription, but it’s much more than that. To judge someone is to assign them to a definition/category and a fate. Not only does this exempt you–the judger–from moral culpability, but it also exalts you to a superior position and creates disconnection. This will limit our ability to see a more accurate picture of what’s actually going on. In practical terms, judging actually causes a kind of ignorance in us, which in business is a definite disadvantage.
Many of the outcomes deemed failures transform into opportunities. One classic example is the neglected piece of moldy bread on which antibiotics were first discovered. When we fixate on the apparent failure of an outcome, we are looking at the present situation in terms of a past expectation. When we make space for the outcomes that have already happened to be as they are, it frees us up to see the present more clearly. In turn, this enables us to take more effective action going forward. And when you allow another – even yourself – to fail without condemning the failure, you are able to experience it from another point of view. This enables a deeper understanding of yourself and others.
Let’s face it. Many people in the business world are so forward-facing that they become negligent when it comes to listening. Bad listening skills come in a variety of forms. From “multitasking” to simply focusing on one’s own thoughts instead of what the conversational partner is trying to communicate. Remembering to take a step back and to actively listen – to hear what another person is saying beyond merely your own initial reactions -will unlock a greater ability to empathize.
Empathy Map: Understand Your Customers
Empathy in the workplace is not limited to how we relate to our coworkers. Empathy is an integral part of design, and more UX professionals are consciously incorporating empathy into their design process. How? Using empathy maps. An empathy map is a tool for collaborative visualization related to product users. Team members create an externalized map of their knowledge of users to empathetically determine user needs and preferences. They then incorporate that information into the design process.
The classic empathy map consists of four quadrants, each representing one dimension of the user experience. The quadrants are – clockwise from top left – [What the User] Says, Thinks, Does, and Feels. Notice that the left half – Says and Does – refer to the exterior dimension of the user experience, whereas the right half – Thinks and Feels – refers to the interior dimension of the user experience. Both are vital to increasing empathy in business.
For too long, empathy has been relegated to the world of Human Resources. But the advantages empathy in business offers individuals and teams is becoming increasingly important. Empathy has become formally adopted by design professionals as well as managers, consultants, and executives across the business landscape. Developing your own sense and understanding of empathy will help you in your personal advancement, and will also make you a better coworker and leader.
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