For the past few months, I was writing about quantum physics and business research to explore innovative ways of using the latest research and wisdom to lead and succeed in a global business environment that is constantly evolving at a rapid pace. As leaders, we need to know what’s going on with our teams and employees. Are they facing major obstacles? Is their rational thinking overridden with fear? They are not always willing to say they need help, as they may perceive it as a sign of weakness or they may believe there will be negative repercussions.
Two weeks ago, in an earlier article on emotions, I have described how science is now showing us ways to read the emotions of other people, so we can proactively offer help. I am certainly aware of the unease or self-conscious discomfort that many people feel when a term such as “empathy” is introduced in a business environment. However, in this article, let me show how to take empathy to the next level.
Empathy is the act of recognizing and sharing the feelings (such as jubilation or fear) that are being experienced by another person. New scientific discovery is giving us confidence to expand on this traditional definition by including the ability to pick up on the feelings, bodily sensations of another person. Indeed, empathy is valued currency. It allows us to create bonds of trust, it gives us insights into what others may be feeling or thinking; it helps us understand how or why others are reacting to situations, it sharpens our “people acumen” and informs our decisions. As leaders, this helps us know if an employee needs our help to clear an obstacle or needs to receive some encouragement.
A large number of experiments using functional MRI have shown that certain brain regions are active when people experience a certain emotion and the same regions are active when they see another person experiencing the same emotion. The practice of “feeling into” another person is reportedly used in psychotherapy, and now we can use it in other areas of our lives, including the more mundane business world.
There are numerous studies that link empathy to business results. They include studies that correlate empathy with increased sales, with the performance of the best managers of product development teams and with enhanced performance in an increasingly diverse workforce.
Yes, increasingly, the topic of empathy is encroaching on the business world. We are now even seeing terms such as “empathy marketing” and “empathy selling”. Not long ago, I came across the term “user empathy”, referring to user interface.
Empathy; which is the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s position, to imagine what they are feeling, to understand what makes people tick, to create relationships and to be caring of others; is very difficult to outsource or automate, and yet is increasingly important to businesses in a global economic environment.
The modern management guru, Dr. Daniel Goleman wrote, “Leaders with empathy, do more than sympathize with people around them: they use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle, but important ways.” This doesn’t mean that they agree with everyone’s view or try to please everybody. Rather, they “thoughtfully consider employees’ feelings – along with other factors – in the process of making intelligent decisions.”
Empathy, then, is an ability that is well-worth cultivating. It’s a soft, sometimes abstract tool in a leader’s toolkit that can lead to hard, tangible results. But where does empathy come from? Is it a process of thinking or of emotion? From a scientific perspective as explained above, I believe that it is both: We need to use our reasoning ability to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings, reactions, concerns, motives; This means truly making an effort to stop and think for a moment about the other person’s perspective in order to begin to understand where they are coming from: And then we need the emotional capacity to care for that person’s concern; Caring does not mean that we would always agree with the person, that we would change our position, but it does mean that we would be in tune with what that person is going through, so that we can respond in a manner that acknowledges their thoughts, feelings or concerns.
When candor is communicated with empathy and caring and not the prideful arrogance of an over inflated ego good things begin to happen. Empathetic communicators display a level of authenticity and transparency that is not present with those who choose to communicate behind the carefully crafted facade propped-up by a very fragile ego. Understanding this communication principle is what helps turn anger into respect and doubt into trust.
So this leads me to a question that I am sometimes asked: “Can you teach someone to be empathetic?” We all know some people who are naturally and consistently empathetic – these are the people who can easily forge positive connections with others. They are people who use empathy to engender trust and build bonds; they are catalysts who are able to create positive communities for the greater good. But even if empathy does not come naturally to some of us, I firmly believe that we can develop this capacity.
Here are a few practical tips you might consider to help you do this:
Smile at people.
Use people’s name. Also remember the names of people’s spouse and children so that you can refer to them by name.
Take a personal interest in people. Show people that you care, and genuine curiosity about their lives. Ask questions about their hobbies, their challenges, their families, their aspirations.
Listen – truly listen to people. Listen with your ears, eyes and heart. Pay attention to others’ body language, to their tone of voice, to the hidden emotions behind what they are saying to you, and to the context.
Don’t interrupt people. Don’t dismiss their concerns offhand. Don’t rush to give advice. Don’t change the subject. Allow people their moment.
Be fully present when you are with people. Don’t check your email, look at your watch or take phone calls when a direct report drops into your office to talk to you. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if your boss did that to you?
Tune in to non-verbal communication. This is the way that people often communicate what they think or feel, even when their verbal communication says something quite different.
Practice the “93% rule”. When communicating about feelings and attitudes, words – the things we say – account for only 7% of the total message that people receive. The other 93% of the message that we communicate when we speak is contained in our tone of voice and body language. It’s important, then, to spend some time to understand how we come across when we communicate with others about our feelings and attitudes.
Encourage people, particularly the quiet ones, when they speak up in meetings. A simple thing like an attentive nod can boost people’s confidence.
Give genuine recognition and praise. Pay attention to what people are doing and catch them doing the right things. When you give praise, spend a little effort to make your genuine words memorable: “You are an asset to this team because… “; “This was pure genius”; “I would have missed this if you hadn’t picked it up.”
Empathy is an emotional and thinking muscle that becomes stronger the more we use it. Try some of these suggestions and watch the reactions of those you work with. I believe you will notice some positive results.
Years ago, I had come across a saying that went something like this: the measure of a man [or woman], is how they treat someone who is of absolutely no use to them. Empathy should not be selective: It should be a daily habit. If I were to create a bumper sticker, I would say: Empathy: Don’t Leave Home Without It!
When you “feel into” another person, you are using a part of your brain not typically used in business. There are three levels of your brain and each perceives differently. The lower level reptile brain, which is seldom used in business today, perceives thru subtle, instinctive vibes. To feel into another person, project your awareness to the other person, envision moving down in your brain toward your instinctive senses, and notice the way your body feels.
This is where knowledge of how your own emotions feel in your body really pays off, because you will feel the other people’s emotions the same way you feel your own. When the other person is feeling empowered and confident, you may feel energy rising in your body, perhaps warmness around your chest. If, on the other hand, you feel your energy drop or tighten, the other person is likely tense, worried, feeling overwhelmed, or holding something back. You can feel the steady waves of harmonious people and the adrenaline of people who are afraid or operating from their ego.
This technique works in person, by phone or even email, as long as you feel a connection to the other person and can project your awareness to them. While you are learning this technique it’s important to keep in mind to always verify with the person that you have accurately detected what they are feeling.
Dr Surya M Ganduri, PhD. PMP. is the Founder & President of eMBC, Inc., an international firm specializing in strategic and executive leadership development processes that Help People Succeed in an Evolving World. Dr Surya has over 28 years of business experience in management consulting, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvements, organizational development and youth leadership. For more information visit www.eMBCinc.com or contact eMBC, Inc., directly at (630) 445-1321.
Tagged with: awareness Emotions Empathy empathy marketing empathy selling feeling empowered and confident feelings functional MRI interconnected nonverbal communications Quantum Physics of Belief user empathy