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Empathy - a quick read

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.’ Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

Last week we discussed self-control which helps us curb over-reactions, but what about situations where we are not able to identify and respond to the emotions of others? If, trust is the basis of long-term relationships then empathy is its magic ingredient.

What is empathy? Why do we have it? How can it be misused? How we can improve it? I answer all these below.

What is empathy, really?

Empathy is sensing other people's emotions and imagining what someone else is feeling. In practice this is a mosaic of cues and background or spoken information. Empathy is a powerful way to get someone's perspective.

I love this diagram from a Harvard Business Review article. It helps pick apart different feelings associated with the pain of others. Pity and sympathy view the others' pain as external - 'they must be feeling bad'. Empathy is about internally experiencing those feelings - 'I can imagine how bad I would feel in their situation'.

Why do we have empathy?

Empathy is not a uniquely human trait. Primates comfort distressed individuals and elephants mourn the dead. Empathy helps us promote social bonds and improves the way we work together. Close relationships and group cohesion improves survival and reproductive success. Empathy is a complex higher function of the brain and lends weight to the hypothesis that the large human brain was largely developed to navigate complex social interactions.

What are the benefits of empathy?

Empathy is the closest thing to mind reading we have. Imagine knowing at all times what someone is thinking and feeling. There are so many benefits of empathy, here are some I think make the point best:

i) It helps persuade. You can address someone's concerns when you understand how they feel about something and why. Empathy is a feature of a great negotiator.

ii) It helps you relate to new people and build relationships. Curiosity and concern will help shatter any stereotypes or prejudices you might hold. Understanding people in their own terms leads to fulfilling interactions.

iii) It helps you contribute to or lead a team. Empathy helps each other contribute and allows you to understand how best to help your team members to pursue the team's goals. Important team decisions are easier to make and for the team to stick to, if people feel heard - empathy is crucial here.

iv) It helps you make decisions. Understanding other people's perspectives about your proposals before it goes for final approval is an important factor about whether it will be implementable or not. This can help you decide whether the objections are surmountable or not.

Conversely, a lack of empathy results in neglect of others' emotions and can damage your ability to maintain relationships. It can also make people overly judgmental and not show gratitude.

Empathy is a neutral value

Whilst empathy can be used for good, where is the line between persuasion and manipulation? By appealing to people's emotions like greed and fear and creating a sense of obligation, empathy can be used in confidence tricks and otherwise making people do things they would be better off not doing. Empathy is a form of data gathering that can be weaponised. The data that tech companies have on us, could be used to manipulate us, and as their tools increase, we could be manipulated by being exposed to our greatest hopes or fears. There is much concern that the political process can be warped by the weaponised empathy.

How to improve your empathy

There were so many tips that I had a choice between 3 or 30. My analytics tell me you guys tend to prefer the shorter reads (use of empathy!) so here are 3:

1) Listen with genuine curiosity. Ask open-ended questions e.g. 'why do you think that?'. Seek to understand before you seek to be understood. Whilst most difficult during stress and conflict, a powerful way to de-escalate a situation is to ask the other person, what they are feeling.

2) Speak to the most credible people with polar opposite views to you or very different backgrounds. What do you agree on? What do you disagree on? Try and understand their views in a non-judgmental way.

3) Observe. How is somebody sitting or standing. What tone and words are they using. Are they calm or agitated, happy or sad. These cues will best help you understand their emotional state.

So what?

How is this relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways before we pick it up next week:

1) Practicing empathy is sensing other people's emotions and imagining what someone else is feeling.

2) The benefits of empathy are in building relationships and being more persuasive. It's important that this does not overstep into manipulation.

3) By listening with curiosity, exposing ourselves to different perspectives and observing the situation we are in, we will better be able to step into the shoes of others and connect more meaningfully.

Thank you for joining. Next week - 'The personal EQ guide'. The week after - 'EQ for leadership'.

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Other blogs in the emotional intelligence series


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