Everyone knows that business is a contact sport with leaders who are supposed to be tough, persistent, and willing to pick a fight for market dominance. Yet business leaders who also feel real empathy for their employees, customers, and partners usually end up building the most lasting organizations.
Empathy is a kind of deep emotional intelligence that allows one to view situations through other people’s eyes and comprehend their differing perspectives. Arrogant or narcissistic entrepreneurs who lack this skill often find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in our fast-changing, people-oriented economy.
Empathy is a vital talent because it helps entrepreneurs grasp their actual competitive standing. It provides insights when naysayers and devil’s advocates describe what is going wrong. Most importantly, empathy helps entrepreneurs face down problems with a heightened awareness to inform their decisions.
Reasons to be more empathetic
Empathy is most lacking among senior executives and middle managers who have the most to gain because their actions impact the most people, according to a recent study reported in the Harvard Business Review by Ernest Wilson, Dean of the USC-Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism.
In the cutthroat war for talent, the USC study found that soft skills such as empathy, adaptability, cultural competence, and intellectual curiosity are emerging as a kind of third space. This new third space diverges from the two traditional business perspectives taught in engineering schools and MBA programs. More entrepreneurs are recognizing the importance of these soft skills, which have been largely downplayed by business and academia.
USC’s global study examined data from 1,900 executives across a broad range of industries and geographic regions. The findings emphasized the value of being empathetic, including:
• Collaboration has become more valuable for leaders who want to break down the rigid chain of command and reach out directly to people wherever they fall on the company org chart.
• Communications are no longer a one-way message from seller to buyer. Today, customers can broadcast their own opinions through social media feeds, blog posts, consumer rating sites, and comments sections. Entrepreneurs with empathy have a greater ability to grasp what those vocal consumers really want and then respond accordingly.
• Cultural diversity in a global economy requires an authentic interest to recognize unique cultural preferences and remain responsive to different types of people. Similarly, as more Millennials populate the workforce, management must understand their professional goals, their technology preferences, and their interests in social responsibility.
• Empathy becomes more important as we move from an industrial society to a services-oriented economy—not only in trying to persuade colleagues to adopt new ways of thinking or to promote new types of products and services, but also to develop stronger bonds for teamwork with partners and colleagues.
Ways to be more empathetic
As business communications rapidly evolve, our communication skills need to grow along with the times. Empathy is not some on/off switch or a rehearsed performance that can be conjured on demand. It is a much needed management trait that requires frequent and regular cultivating.
Of course it should be noted that the pursuit of empathy presents an inherent contradiction. People who start new businesses must be driven and self-interested to ensure the success of their companies. But truly self-aware leaders should also recognize that the goal of empathy is in many ways a selfish pursuit for their own benefit. The irony of this contradiction is unavoidable, just as a spiritual mystic who seeks to control his own desires must admit that he is desirous of self-control.
Here are some pointers on how the soft skill of empathy can open the doors to better engagement:
• Walk a mile in their shoes.
Put aside your viewpoint for a moment and try to understand things from the other person’s perspective. Empathy allows you to feel another person’s pain, so when you walk a mile in their shoes, you may finally notice that their shoes are uncomfortable, ill-fitting or even full of holes.
• Validate their walk.
Once you’ve envisioned their walk, acknowledge it. Learn to accept that people have different opinions from your own. Acknowledgement does not always equal agreement, but it does provide some much-needed validation, which is powerful in its own right.
• Acknowledge your own walk.
Be honest in your self-evaluation. Think about your motives. Are you more concerned with getting your way, winning, and being right? Or is your priority to find a solution, build relationships, and accept others? Without an open mind and positive attitude, you probably won’t have enough internal capacity for empathy.
• Do not just pay attention—really listen.
Good listeners engage with others by truly hearing what people say, and even reading between the lines to pick up subtle messages and emotional cues. Do not jump to hasty conclusions. Show interest, ask questions and let people speak their minds without interruption. Embrace differences by recognizing them, not by arguing or scolding, and try to seek a mutually acceptable middle ground.
When all else fails, ask, “What would they do?” This is the simplest and most direct way to understand the thoughts and feelings of other people—that is, to empathize with them.
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