When we think of empathy, we often think of comforting someone, helping someone, or being “nicer.” But empathy is much more than that: It is a proven skill that is the key to the competitive advantage of your workforce, enabling critical capabilities we need in our organizations today:
Clearer communication: Empathy makes it easier to understand others’ verbal and nonverbal cues. In sales or in customer service, this capacity is absolutely essential.
Improved conflict resolution: Understanding others makes you an efficient social problem-solver.
Efficient teams: Empathy builds trust and fosters connection. Mutual understanding is the foundation of productive collaboration.
Higher performance and motivation: Empathy leads to higher job satisfaction and increased motivation by increasing connection to coworkers.
Effective negotiations: People are more likely to listen and engage when you can anticipate their needs.
Defined as the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences from their point of view, empathy doesn’t come easily to everyone. That’s why we need to train our people for it. Human beings have a tendency to “self-anchor,” meaning we see the world through the lens of our own experiences. However, research shows that with the right practice we can increase our ability to empathize.
The best way to build empathy? By addressing what blocks it.
BLOCKER #1: DISAGREEMENT
Disagreement often leads to judgment, which closes us off to others’ perspectives—and shuts down empathy. Resolving disagreement isn’t always easy, but it’s a skill that you can get better at with practice. meQuilibrium Co-founder and Chief Science Officer Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., recommends using the DEAL model to avoid miscommunication:
BLOCKER #2: DISCONNECTION
As the proportion of our online interactions increases, our basic people skills suffer. As a result, research suggests that we are a staggering 40 percent less empathetic now than we were 30 years ago.
Micro-affirmations—small, positive social interactions—help combat this disconnection and make it more likely that others will want to work with you in the future. And it can be as easy as making a point to catch up with coworkers and find things you have in common. Creating deeper connections opens the door to empathy, boosting both happiness at work and team performance.
BLOCKER #3: DISTRACTION
Distraction is a huge problem at work today, for all of us. One study found that the average office worker loses an average of two hours to distraction each day. And when we’re distracted, we’re disconnected from others and empathy is shut off. A few common distractors include:
Task Brain: When we’re focused on an analytical task, the part of our brain that notices emotions is deactivated.
>> Combat it: Plan what you’ll work on before you get into the focus zone. Decision-making takes energy. When you start working immediately, rather than spending time deciding what you’ll do, you can channel all of that energy into execution.
Stress: When we’re stressed, our brain goes into fight-or-flight mode and we can’t recognize others’ needs.
>> Combat it: Showing and receiving gratitude triggers the body’s “feel good” hormones, which leads to a positive emotional state and an increased sense of well-being for both the “thanker” and the “thankee.”
Technology: Technology distances us from the facial expressions and body language that help spark empathy.
>> Combat it: Stop what you’re doing now and look around your space. How many gadgets do you have around you right now? How many are you actively engaged with? Try turning off as many as you can for 30 minutes.
We tend to think of the hard skills as the most important (Excel mastery, data conversions, sales forecasting, coding), and the soft skills—the emotional and cognitive skills—get less attention and focus. But they are arguably the most important. The good news? They can be learned. How can we be agile and innovate, for example, if we are uncomfortable with change and uncertainty? And similarly, when it comes to empathy, how can we be adept communicators, team players, negotiators without it? The answer is that we can’t.
These foundational skills are no longer secondary to technical skills and can’t be considered “nice to have”.
>> Discover how empathy and the other factors that make up resilience unlock business growth.
>> Already well aware of how important resilience is and struggling to gain leadership buy in? Download our guide on how to build a business case for resilience.