Entails empathy – and empathy can be learned

The modern world makes it easy to lose sight of the feelings of others, what with its over-emphasis on rational intelligence, competitiveness and high performance. These values tend to be even more lauded in the business world, where toughness and invincibility are cultivated and appreciated. We tend to think of empathy as an inborn quality – some have it more than others. The truth is, we all possess an innate ability for empathy (you can try this test to see how good you are at it), only most don’t tap into their full empathic potential in everyday life. Empathy means looking at the world through the eyes of others.

The good news is empathy skills can be learned and enhanced. They make for a deeper, more meaningful, richer relationships – both at home and at work. They are even more important these days, when screens and virtual connections keep us even further apart from each other, and body language is more challenging (or even impossible) to read.

If you wish to strengthen your empathic muscles, what could be some skills to work on? Choose any of the following (all equally important):-

1. Develop “extreme listening” skills

Yes, we keep coming back to this point because it is so significant. It is also a skill you can cultivate even in a virtual work environment.

  • Let people have their say, fully.
  • Hold back from interrupting, judging or commenting.
  • Reflect back what they’ve told you, so they know you were really listening.
  • Pause and reflect before giving your opinion.

2. Look for the human behind everything

If ever you feel hurt, pained, weak or sick, you crave for understanding from others. If you fall ill or are temporarily unable to work due to a family emergency, you become grateful for the empathy and support of your manager. Can you accord such understanding to others? Can you resist the urge to judge and criticize them, and instead try to be curious about the human behind the character? Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Next time your cleaner comes along (if you have one), can you spare a few minutes to speak with him/her? Who are they, where do they live, who is their family and why did they choose to do cleaning work? Can you make a small effort to get to know the human behind the hoover?
  • When your young child starts screaming, can you imagine yourself being his/her age, and what you would have felt like in his/her situation?
  • When you next have a call with a colleague (or, if suitable, with a client), be curious about them as a person. Ask a non-intrusive, open question or two that will allow you, little by little, to know more about the human behind the colleague (or client). People often like to speak about themselves and are positively surprised when someone is sincerely interested in their wellbeing. Be gentle and genuine, and you may be in for some pleasant surprises.

3. When in conflict, ask yourself ‘What kind of need is this person trying to fulfill?’

instead of responding immediately. This is one of the cornerstones of the famous ‘Non-Violent Communication’ framework developed by Marshall Rosenberg – actively trying to understand where someone’s anger or upset is coming from, because it often comes from a basic need that is not being fulfilled, and it is much less about you than about them. To get an idea of the kind of needs we all have, check this list.

Pay careful attention to what may lie behind the angry words; what is the person really looking for? Acknowledgment of their pain? Recognition of the injustice done to them? A nod from your side that “yes, you have a point”? You may wish to try this approach first with a close friend or a partner – it is a game-changer, and it requires openness and vulnerability on both sides.