Empathy is often contrasted with sympathy and that comparison implies that it is a skill for helping someone who is in distress of some nature. It’s certainly a necessary part of a therapeutic relationship, but is just as necessary in all our relationships ...
Daniel Goleman, in his book Working With Emotional Intelligence explains empathy at working at three levels: "At the very least, empathy requires being able to read another's emotions. At a higher level, it entails sensing and responding to their unspoken concerns and feelings. Empathy is understanding the issues or concerns that lie behind another's feelings"
We often refer to them as, insensitive, indifferent, uncaring, judgemental or simply downright rude. These are extreme examples, but we also express a lack of empathy when we say things like, "You're not listening to me", "He doesn't get it", "How can she possibly think that's ok?" or even, "I thought he'd like it!"
Developing our empathetic skills and getting 'under the skin' of what others are feeling is a critical business skill. When we talk about finding what our customer wants from us, how to close that sale, how to negotiate with our suppliers, how to engage with our team, how to operate in a multicultural world or tackle 'difficult people' then empathy becomes an essential tool.
So, how can we become more empathetic in business? Here's a simple checklist:
- Pay full attention to the other person. Certainly listening is important, but also watching their demeanour. It's not just what they say it's how they say it. Where does the energy change? What do they do to back up those words?
A simple example I experienced yesterday when browsing at a Garden Centre. I'd got to the checkout with an empty basket and was going to walk out when the woman behind the counter asked me if she could help me as I looked a bit lost. No, I hadn't found what I was looking for so asked her where the indoor plants were. She pointed me in the right direction and guess what? I ended up buying. She put herself in my place, empty basket, dithering about to her meant I hadn't found what I wanted and was open to an offer of help. Different from the commissioned saleswoman in a store who jumps on you when you're just browsing.
- Reserve judgement and avoid both sympathy or criticism. Empathy is not about agreeing or disagreeing with the way someone feels about something, it's understanding it from their point of view. How many of us have met someone who, from our point of view, obviously needs our services, but doesn't take them up? I often hear people say (and have thought it myself) how short-sighted they are! We're not on their wavelength ... what is short-sighted to us is prudence to the prospect.
- Reflect back on their feeling to improve your understanding and get to the bottom of the issues and concerns that lie behind what they first express. Allow the person to feel they have been heard and understood. Taking my example above, delving a bit deeper to understand their need for prudence and stepping into their world may lead to a different outcome.
Daniel Goleman quotes Richard Boyatis when he cautions to avoid psychologizing. That is giving their reaction a psychological label or worse still, a pop-psychological or cultural explanation. "You're actually dismissing their problem by talking about its supposed causes."
So, superficial answers like, "Well, engineers are known to be risk-averse" explains away why they choose not to buy. For all you know, this particular engineer may have just have put up his family home as collateral for a huge loan to take his product to market.
- Lastly, give feedback that you've understood how they are feeling. Remember that you can never put yourself exactly in the place the other is. So, sentences like, "I know how you feel" are not feedback, you don't know how they feel you can only imagine it and feed it into your memory banks of how you felt in a similar situation. Much better to say something like, "just to check I've understood you, at the moment you'd find this is one investment too many?"
I've pretty much kept my examples in this process to a sales scenario. I'd like to end with some thoughts on empathy in innovation and strategy, getting under the skin of your prospective customers using Henry Ford's famous quote.
That quote has all the hallmarks as being thought through as a good sound bite. I think that in reality, he had looked at the issue more empathetically. What people wanted was a mixture of a faster way of getting from A to B, with a time/route of their choice (not relying on the railways) and at a price they could afford.
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