When we think about empathy, we tend to place it in the social domain of our lives - the poor and the aged, a friend who lost a loved one or a family member that is going through financial problems.
Rarely do we associate empathy with our career success. At work, it’s all business, nothing personal. You might even consider it a weakness if you display empathy at work. The truth is empathy has a direct and significant impact on your perceived leadership qualities.
Empathy is not Sympathy
Before you consider yourself as an empathic person, ensure that you are not confusing it with sympathy. Sympathy is when you feel sorry for the misfortune of another. Empathy, on the other hand, is your ability to put yourself in the shoes of another person and understand his/her worldview. This can be especially challenging when the other person is someone you don't have a natural connection with or have opposing viewpoints and beliefs.
Why empathy matters
1. Being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes helps you connect with your colleagues, be it supervisors or subordinates. Everybody likes to work with someone who understands where they are coming from and someone who is able to acknowledge opposing opinions even if you cannot accept it.
2. It makes you connect with your clients (and external agencies) at a deeper level. People like to do business they like.
3. Your decision-making becomes more balanced because you know how to ask the right questions. With the right amount of information, even tough decision can be communicated with greater sensitivity. People instinctively know that leaders cannot make decisions that please everyone. You just need to remind them that you have made due consideration of their positions. That will help them feel acknowledged.
Having people skills is an essential component of leadership. It can also avert many unnecessary conflicts at the work place. Most professionals believes in taking up courses to improve their technical expertise. But when it comes to the domain of soft skills, they tend to erroneously subscribe to the idea that they are set in their ways when it comes to soft skills. They have the “I am what I am” attitude.
How to improve your empathy at work.
1. Believe that you can be a more empathic person
Research at UC Berkeley has shown that empathy is not like your height. It doesn't stop growing at a certain age. Empathy can be nurtured no matter how callous you think you are now. And it can keep growing throughout your life.
2. Be curious about how other people are different from you
The sooner you come to accept that you have not worked out all the how-to-be the more open you will be to finding out how others do the same things differently from you. Whether that is a better or worse way doesn't matter. If it is working for them, it is totally valid for them.
Just observing how people think and do things differently can shed a lot of light on how the same world is so different to different people.
3. Expand your social circle
It has been said that you are the average of the five people you hang around with most. This quote has been adopted whole-heartedly by most success-oriented people like you. What is the consequence of this?
You end up surrounding yourself with people who think just like you. That is when you start judging people who are different or have different values and opinions from you.
When you interact on a deeper level with people outside people you have affinity with you will start to realise why someone can be totally comfortable being laid back. It’s because they have defined success in very different ways from you. And it is valid for them.
The truth is, if you have worked out your values, goals, standards and boundaries, you can be hanging out with a wide variety of people without making significant impact to your success orientation.
4. Start listening to people differently
When you have a sincere intention to be more empathic and being more appreciative of how people can be different you will start listening to people at a deeper level. You will find yourself wanting to understand them better from their perspective, not yours. You don't jump to conclusion as quickly as you used to. You start to feel for them more, even if you disagree with the position they take.
Here’s something to think about:
1. What stops you from being more empathic at work currently?
2. How has others shown empathy towards you? What was your perception of these individuals?
3. How can you benefit by being a little bit more empathic at work?