Friday, 19 July 2013 14:50

The Truth About Empathy

Without empathy, you’ll never be able to communicate effectively and relate well to others. People who lack empathy are sure to face interpersonal difficulties that lead to inferior performance, negative outcomes, and poor relationships with coworkers and customers. 

As a competency skill, empathy is poorly understood by those who need it the most. Some hard-driving managers eschew the need to develop empathy because they assume it’s for “touchy-feely” types. Other tone-deaf leaders blindly walk around, relying solely on logic and wondering why others fail to see things their way.

Research by the Center for Creative Leadership reveals that executive “derailment” is primarily caused by deficits in emotional competence:                                                                                                                                                    

1. Difficulty in handling change

2. Inability to work well in teams

3. Poor interpersonal relations

The inability to understand matters from others’ points of view means some people lack the flexibility required for change. These individuals simply cannot work well with, or relate to, others, which makes them workplace liabilities. This is particularly true for leaders who lack these fundamental skills in times of change and uncertainty.

Defining Empathy

Empathy is the ability to “walk in someone else’s moccasins.” Psychologist Daniel Goleman,  author of  Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, defines it as the ability to read other people by sharing and identifying their emotional states.

According to Goleman, empathy is a foundational skill for all social competencies in the workplace:

  1.      Understanding others: Sensing others’ feelings and perspectives; taking an actve interest in their concerns
  2.      Service orientation: Anticipating, recognizing and meeting customers’ needs
  3.      Developing others: Sensing others’ developmental needs and bolstering their abilities
  4.      Leveraging diversity: Cultivating opportunities among diverse people
  5.      Political awareness: Reading the political and social currents in an organisation

Successful leaders score high marks in these areas, which leads to goal completion—not to mention opportunities for promotion and greater likelihood of success leading outcomes in times of change. When combined with focus, perseverance and concentration, empathy breeds achievement.

The Trickle-Down Theory

Empathetic managers are more likely to inspire others. They are generally well liked and command greater respect, which means their direct reports will be motivated to go the extra mile. The goal is to achieve balance in empathy and goal-orientation for optimum effectiveness.

Empathy is even more critical when managers:

  •     Assign unpleasant tasks
  •     Provide sensitive feedback or criticism
  •     Deal with employee disputes
  •     Dislike an employee or customer
  •     Deliver bad news (termination or denial of promotion)

Fundamental Interactions

The good news is, for the majority of individuals, empathy can be learned with the assistance of a skilled coach. So, where does one start?

  1.     Uncover the truth about your empathy skills.  Connect with a coach who has specialised skills in assessing this competency with a high degree of accuracy
  2.     Deal with any negativity by empathising with others.
  3.     Next, return the focus to the goals and tasks at hand.

The first step requires true curiosity, the desire to understand another’s point of view, and a genuine interest in what the person is saying and feeling. The best way to accomplish this step is through questions like:

  1.     “Can you say more about that?”
  2.     “Really? That’s interesting. Can you be more specific?”
  3.     “I wasn’t aware of that. Tell me more.”
  4.     “I’m curious about that. Let’s discuss this in greater depth.”
  5.     “Let me see if I understand you correctly. Here is what I hear you saying…”

Nonverbal Cues

Be sure to focus on emotional cues. Appreciate not only what others are saying, but also why they are saying it. Also listen for what’s not being said.

Without empathy, you will have a tendency to misread other people. You will neglect to ask clarifying questions, and you will miss nonverbal cues. If you listen only to others’ words, facts and figures, you will miss the emotional context of what’s being said.

Research tells us that we remember only 7 percent of someone’s message from their words. The rest is communicated through nonverbal cues: facial expressions, body language and tonality. Strict attention to words will mislead you, so make sure that nonverbal communication is consistent with what you’re hearing.

10 Steps to Improving Empathy

The following steps can help you improve your empathy skills. As with other emotional competencies, empathy requires practice, so consider working with an experienced coach if you continue to face obstacles.

  1.     Take note of situations in which you demonstrated empathy (versus the times you failed to do so).
  2.     Recall times when people’s underlying concerns were not explicitly expressed and/or addressed.
  3.     Identify emotions the other person may be experiencing. Explore the possibilities, without assuming your suspicions are true.
  4.     Develop a list of questions for your next encounter with this person.
  5.     Practice listening without interrupting. Wait until others fully express their points of view before offering your own.
  6.     Avoid being defensive. Your goal is to create an open dialogue, during which possibilities can be freely explored.
  7.     Allow enough time for people to express their opinions and ideas without judgment.
  8.     Practice active listening. Always confirm the meaning of what was said.  Paraphrasing people’s words helps clear up misconceptions and deepens understanding.
  9.     Always focus on desired outcomes. Be sure to balance empathy and focus to achieve optimum effectiveness.
  10.     Continue to practice this balance of focus, goal-orientation and empathetic listening.

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