There is a lot of value in empathy at work. Understanding the situations your colleagues are facing can help you to work more effectively with them. Understanding customer and clients can make it easier to provide them the service they want in the way that they want it.
There are clear differences between people in how much empathy they bring with them in interactions. Some people naturally take other people’s perspectives and emotions into account when interacting with them. Others are rooted in their own way of thinking about things and can be oblivious to the goals, motivations, and emotions of others. Luckily you can practice being more empathetic—in the workplace, and beyond.
If empathy doesn’t come naturally to you—or if you are mentoring someone else who rarely takes other people’s perspectives into consideration—there are some ways to learn to show more empathy and to make a habit of it:
Have three questions and a statement in mind
If you want to show more empathy, you have to notice what is happening with the people around you, and then you have to incorporate it into your interactions. In order to do that, it is helpful to remember three questions and a statement. (And because so many interactions happen these days via video or IM, you could even put them on a sticky note on your computer as a cheat sheet.)
First, ask yourself “What does this person want?” Thinking about their goals is important. The emotions people experience are directly related to how things are going for them motivationally. When you understand what they want, you can determine whether they are succeeding (and also whether they perceive you as someone who will help or hinder them in achieving success).
Second, ask “What situation are they in?” Often, when you deal with another person, you unconsciously assume that they are in the same situation you’re in at that moment. As a result, when they react to something in a different way than you expect, you assume there is something about them that is causing the surprising response. Often, though, their situation is different from yours. Once you understand more about what they are dealing with beyond the present moment, you can often better empathize with them.
Third, you want to know “What are they displaying to you?” You need to really attend to the reactions people are giving. Often, you may talk about a product, service, or solution you can offer and miss the mark. People are responding to what you say in real time with their facial expressions and their body language. Watching them closely will give you a sense of what is landing with them and what is not. And when you get signs that you are not communicating effectively, you need to be sensitive to the emotions you have created with your words.
If empathy doesn’t come naturally to you, it is valuable to practice. One particularly effective strategy is to simulate the situation and play different roles in it. Healthcare workers benefit from spending time going through what patients experience in their settings. Salespeople learn a lot from seeing the customer experience.
One cool technique that makes use of this simulation is empathic design. With this technique, a team uses a product or service while simulating conditions a particular kind of user might experience. A team designing a new tent might build it in a dark room or outside with a sprinkler system going. A team doing customer service might wear eye patches to simulate engaging with a support team when blind. This first-person perspective can lead to new insights about flaws in an existing product or service.
Don’t forget the value of reading a good book. I’m not talking about reading a business book or some popular science. Instead, grab a novel. Reading transports you into the mind and situation of someone else who is likely to be different from yourself. Inhabiting their world for a while give you insight into the variety of ways that other people’s lives and thought processes differ from your own.
The more that you read, the more practice you get recognizing that the very same situation might be seen differently by different people as a result of who they are and what they have experienced. Keep a novel handy at all times and read when you can. Not only will it be entertaining, it might also help to expand your capacity to walk in the shoes of others.