By Emma Serlin
June 3, 2019

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Traditionally viewed as a 'soft' or 'feminine' skill, empathy is finally getting the attention it deserves as the most important business skill. But what does empathy really mean, and how can using empathy in your communication make more effective? Read on...

We’ve known for a while that, in general terms at least, women and men bring different skills to the boardroom. And pretty complementary skills at that. But now scientists at the University of Cambridge have proven, using a sample of over half a million people, that it is indeed true: women are naturally more empathetic and men are more analytical.

And while you may or may not agree with this statement, it’s hard to dispute that it is often the analytical skills that are given more credence in executive circles. But in this day and age, the difficulties of making yourself heard above the bombardment of sales messages and information, not to mention the challenges of managing millennials, mean that arguably skills like empathy in communication are becoming vital in the leadership of a healthy and successful modern organisation.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the skill of reading people, understanding their feelings and being able to share the journey with them. It’s about being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It helps us to think about others before we speak and consider differing points of view.

Empathy inspires connection by improving the way we communicate. Thus making it a valuable business tool to improve meeting room discussions and boost collaboration.

Sounds pretty useful, right? Right! In fact, we believe that empathy is one of the top six 'soft skills' that all great entrepreneurs and leaders share. Here are just some of the ways a more empathetic approach in the workplace can pay dividends...

How to use empathy to get your audience nodding along to your presentation

Are you due to take part in an important pitch, presentation or negotiation? Empathy can help you give your audience that important ‘aha’ moment.

Before you begin writing your speech, use empathy to tune into your listeners and really get to know them. Spend time thinking about who your audience are and what makes them tick. Try to work out their point of view. Once you’ve identified this you can think about how to best put things across so they can make sense of them.

A young audience of soon-to-be school leavers will need a very different approach to a  board of a FTSE 100 company. You might use different words, different metaphors, different examples or stories to back up your points. You may even wear different clothes for the event. It’s not about making a judgment of others or being inauthentic, it’s about tuning into the values of your audience and working out how to best deliver your message in a way that will resonate with them.


Identify pain points and use them to show you understand

When you’re pitching to a client, one valuable sales technique that relies on empathy is to identify your audience’s source of pain - what values or needs do they have that are or are not being met? Use these insights to shape your speech or argument, it will help your listeners to engage from the heart and the head. Once you have some nodding heads in the room it becomes a lot easier to deliver your solution. Your listeners will feel that you’ve taken the time to understand them making them much more receptive to your pitch.

If you can use empathy to really understand and listen to what is going on for other people, you can not only develop a product or service that will truly help them, but you’ll be able to tailor your message so it speaks right to their heart and shows them they’re understood. That’s when you’ll get their buy-in.

Make your team feel heard to bring out the best in them

When you’re acting in a leadership or management capacity, it can be easy to spend your time issuing instructions and checking your employees are doing what they should be. But to create a successful team, you need to bring out the best in them individually. So how can you do that? Again, empathy.

Making sure your team feel heard and taking time to understand how they’re feeling about work - for instance where they’re struggling or where they feel excited and on fire - is really important when it comes to helping them become their best selves.

If you’re finding it hard to get through to a difficult employee try taking a step back and injecting some empathy into the situation before you find yourself becoming overly critical. Consider the kind of person they are and what makes them tick. Does that give you any clues as to why they’re behaving in the way they are?

If someone needs structure and routine to feel safe and secure you may find that when things aren’t going according to plan they act out. If you can find a reason for a particular behaviour it should be much easier to show understanding, allowing you to communicate without judgement and ultimately achieve a better result.


Empathy can be learned

But what if empathy doesn’t come naturally? It may make you feel better to know that researchers from University of Zurich found that empathy can be learned.

Here are just some of the techniques you can add into your everyday to demonstrate empathy in all your communications:  


Give people the opportunity to open up to you. Instead of asking, “Are you OK?” try an open question like “What’s going on for you?” This will send signals that you’re interested in the person in front of you and will encourage them to open up and talk about their experiences. They’ll feel listened to and you’ll get important insights into how they’re feeling and how you can best support them.

Body language

Positive body language is vital for connection and keeping your body language open is the best way to achieve this. Leaning towards the person who is speaking to you and offering direct eye contact with open, bright eyes will show that you are interested. Demonstrating active listening by using occasional prompts and repeating or reflecting on what is being said will also help you demonstrate empathy.

Consider values

It can be difficult to build empathy for people who are very different to us. One way to overcome this is to plug into their values and work out what makes them tick. What is their frame of reference that’s making them behave or speak in the way they are? It may be that someone has different values to you but once you understand them you should at least be able to have some respect for them.

Consult Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

One way to begin to understand challenging behaviour and develop greater understanding is to consider real human needs and whether these are being met for the person you’re dealing with. If not, this could explain many types of behaviour. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs explains our human needs as physiological at a basic level (i.e. food, water, sleep). Once these needs are met, we tend to worry about safety and security, perhaps in terms of health, emotional wellbeing and financial security. After this we look for belonging and social intimacy or even love, self-esteem and finally self-actualisation or the pursuit of happiness. Approaching people with empathy about their needs can help to foster connection and better communication.

So is empathy really a superpower?

Put simply, yes. Empathy can literally change the way you relate to others in all areas of life for the better.

But in business? It can be career changing, allowing you to forge real connections. In fact, we’d go as far as saying it is vital for entrepreneurs and leaders of all shapes and sizes to put time and effort into learning how to be more empathetic with employees, customers, investors and stakeholders alike.

If you ask us, it’s what great leaders are made of.

Our Effective Communication course will support you to become more receptive to the needs and motivations of others in order to become a more empathetic communicator.

Want simple, no-nonsense communication tips that can be put into practice in as little as five minutes?

Download your free sample chapter of The Connection Book by Emma Serlin.



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