Seven ways to improve your empathy skills

EmpathyEmpathy is fast becoming recognised as an essential skill that improves relationships between individuals and contributes to business success. Research into the impact of increased empathy goes back decades, and businesses recognise its importance. Ford Motor Company has even asked its engineers, who are mostly men, to wear the Empathy Belly so that they can experience some of the physical effects of pregnancy.

What is less widely understood is that empathy is a skill that people can learn, improve and strengthen, like any other skill. We all know people who seem to be naturally empathic, but we never question whether that’s an innate ability or whether they’ve actually just learnt well and use the skill a lot. Indeed, women are expected to be more empathic than men, but this is a self-fulfilling prophecy where women get a lot more practice as empathic burdens are placed disproportionately on their shoulders.

Women are assumed to be ‘naturally empathic’, but in reality we learn it just the same as every other skill, which means we don’t always get it right. So let’s take a look at what empathy is and isn’t, and techniques for improving your empathy skills.

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. It is the skill to develop insights into how others are thinking and why they react as they do, the capacity to recognise people’s emotional inner life, and the desire to make them feel heard and understood. Empathy creates trust and trust improves relationships.

Business is as much about building good relationships as it is delivering a service or product, so it’s obvious how empathy feeds into the bottom line. Empathy is also important in an academic context, allowing lecturers, tutors, supervisors and researchers to build strong and healthy relationships with their students, co-authors, collaborators and peers.

Empathy is increasingly important as globalisation increases as well. Working with international teams from multiple cultures requires more empathy than working within a familiar and homogenous group. And sensitivity is especially required when working with, and on issues affecting, minorities and underserved communities. The advocate must develop deep empathy for the people they serve in order to be effective.

But empathy is not about taking on more emotional labour, it’s not about always being the person who de-escalates tension within the workplace, is the shoulder to cry on or the person to rage at. It is not about taking on other people’s work in order to make life easier for them, and it is not about exhibiting people-pleasing behaviours such as pretending to agree or apologising all the time. And it’s not about avoiding conflict or being compliant.

Indeed, dealing with conflict is a scenario where empathy is especially important – understanding why there is disagreement and what is motivating the people involved can provide important insights into potential solutions. And sometimes, those solutions have nothing to do with the putative subject of the argument, because the real problem lies elsewhere and thus so does the answer.  

So how do you improve your empathy muscles? Here are a few tips to try:

  1. Listen, and listen fully. Focus all your attention on what people are saying, rather than checking your phone or mentally preparing your next response as they speak. The more you pay attention to what they are saying, the more you will hear the nuance in their tone of voice, and that will tell you a lot about how they are feeling.

  2. Make eye contact, but don’t stare. Eye contact is a crucial aspect of body language which indicates honesty, sincerity, confidence and comfort, and that you actually are paying attention! Staring, on the other hand, is a sign of aggression. If you’re not comfortable making eye contact, practice with someone you trust, but be careful not to overcompensate.

  3. Pay attention to body language. Facial expressions and posture can all tell us something about how the people we’re talking to are feeling. Are they tense, relaxed, excited? Their body language and facial expressions might be saying something very different to what their words are saying, and could give you insights into their real thought processes.

  4. Don’t interrupt unless you really have to. No matter how keen you are to put your point of view across, it’s generally better to let people finish so that you reduce the risk of misunderstanding and help them to feel heard. Sometimes, however, interruptions are necessary, so when you do interrupt, be respectful and polite about it.

  5. Acknowledge. Once you’ve listened, acknowledge what you have heard. People don’t just want to speak, they want to be heard, they want their feelings to be recognised. This doesn’t mean using trite formulations like, “What I hear is…”, but explaining your understanding of the problem they have expressed can help ensure that you really have got it right, and gives them a chance to clarify if they need to.

  6. Pay attention to group dynamics. Empathy is not just important in one-on-one conversations, but also in groups. Is someone being excluded? Why might that be? Are there undercurrents of aggression, frustration, or other negative emotions that you can spot via body language? What is the power dynamic? Understanding group dynamics will help you function better in that group and, if you’re a manager, give you key insights into potential interventions to improve team cohesion.

  7. Engage in scenarios thinking. We respond better to difficult situations if we’ve already got a mental model of what needs to be done, so run some thought experiments, perhaps even practice with a trusted friend, to work out your response to various problems. This will not only help you spot warning signs so that you can intervene earlier, but also help you respond empathetically should issues arise, rather than reacting in surprise.

Empathy is a skill and like any other skill, the more you do it the better you’ll get at it. But equally, don’t overdo it. Empathy is a finite resource and it is possible to wind up with ‘compassion fatigue’, so use the empathy you have very wisely. If you’re a manager, make sure your staff are taking their fair share of the empathy load. Better still, look for ways to reduce that load, perhaps by changing team culture, building in breaks so staff with empathically demanding roles can focus on other things, and facilitating better team communications.

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