The rise of the Information Age and the growing popularity of the virtual workspace has brought the world “closer” than ever before. But it seems like the “closer” we get, the less personally connected we become.
Case in point: Empathy. Being empathetic isn’t something you hear much about anymore. In fact, what does it even mean to have empathy?
Put simply, empathy is the ability to see the world through the eyes of another. But true empathy is something more than just that.
A highly empathetic person senses the emotions of those around them, and has the ability to tap into those same emotions within themselves. In essence, they “become” the person they’re empathizing with by truly experiencing their emotions.
The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy
And that’s the difference between sympathy and empathy: When you’re sympathetic, you might feel pity for the other person’s situation, but there’s still a distance between you and their experience.
But when you’re empathetic, you don’t just know how someone else feels; you understand how they feel, and you feel it with them. Or, as WiseGeek put it, empathy “implies feeling with a person, rather than feeling sorry for a person.”
Because of this, empathy is a rare skill. In fact, it goes back generations before us; to those who grew up in a time when sharing feelings and hardships was the natural (and often only) way to form connections with others.
When we express empathy, it facilitates those genuine human connections like nothing else can; and when another person perceives you as empathetic, they feel understood, respected, and valued. As a result, you establish yourself as someone who is memorable, likeable, and trustworthy.
But the benefits don’t stop there.
Why Empathy is Vital in Generating Referrals for Your Business
Generally speaking, empathy is something we tend to reserve for our personal lives. For example:
- Comforting a heartbroken daughter,
- Listening to your frustrated spouse, or
- Mourning a loss alongside a friend.
However, empathy can—and should—also be practiced in our professional relationships.
When you’re in a relationship- and referral-based business (and most of us are), these relationships form because of a fundamental trust between you and your network.
When you express empathy, you are delivering an experience to people that they’re not just listened to; they’re heard. And because they’re heard, they’re understood.
This gives your network a sense of connection and safety directly associated with you, ultimately laying the foundation for them to trust you with their business.
5 Tips to Become a More Empathetic Person
And here’s the best part of all of this: Empathy is a skill, and skills can be learned if they’re practiced. So let’s talk about five ways you can begin practicing empathy today.
#1. (Actively) Listen More Than You Speak
Most of us speak at least twice as much as we listen.
It’s easy to get so caught up explaining something that we fail to stop and consider what the other person might be thinking or feeling.
And empathetic person, on the other hand, listens first; and only speaks after they’ve carefully heard. Here at Mindmaven, we call this Active listening.
Here are five steps you can take to become a better listener:
- Commit your undivided attention to the conversation. That means no cell phones, tablets, or computers. Communicate this undivided attention by maintaining steady eye contact.
- Let the speaker actually speak. Give them the time they need to finish their thoughts and avoid interrupting them.
- Summarize your understanding. Once the speaker has finished talking, summarize your understanding back to them. Then ask, “Have I understood this correctly?”
- Ask insightful, relevant questions. Tap into your natural curiosity and ask nonjudgmental questions to better understand the other person’s perspectives, thoughts, and feelings.
- Allow the other person to rant. When someone’s having troubles of some kind, they may be emotionally flustered. That’s okay. Give them the space to feel that. Let them talk from their heart and share how they feel; often, this will lead to them discovering their own solutions.
And here’s the best part: Although people often uncover their own solutions whilst talking with an empathetic person, they often end up attributing that solution to the empathizer anyway. So even if you did very little in the conversation, the other person probably won’t see it that way.
To learn more about the art of active listening, check out Could You Say That Again? 5 Tips to Build Better Relationships Through Active Listening.
#2: Express Your Perspective
After you’ve heard the other person out, you’re in an excellent position to express empathy by voicing how you’d feel in that same situation. For example:
- “That must feel absolutely awful,”
- “I wouldn’t know what to do, or”
- “It’s hard for me to hear what you just said because the whole situation just makes me feel so angry.”
These comments are all great ways to show you understand how the other person is feeling. The catch is that these statements must be genuine.
So try to imagine exactly what the other person is going through. Put yourself in their shoes, experience the moment as if it were happening to you, and let your emotions guide you.
Once you feel those emotions, voice them. More often than not, your emotional response will be very similar to theirs; and this will cause the other person to feel understood and heard, leading to a greater sense of connection between you both.
#3: Be Vulnerable
Too many professional conversations stay in emotional “Safe zones.”
We fear vulnerability because we worry that others may perceive us as foolish or weak. Brené Brown—a brilliant woman at the forefront of vulnerability research—disagrees.
Brown says that vulnerability actually helps us connect with others, because it communicates that we’re human; complete with our own weaknesses, hurts, and fears. This creates a feeling of “sameness” that gives the other person something to connect to.
As Shana Lebowitz points out in this brilliant feature, even Benjamin Franklin noticed this pattern, stating “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself has obliged.”
Put simply: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Asking for help shows vulnerability, and vulnerability often leads to that greater sense of connection and relation.
Here are three steps to practice being more vulnerable in your professional interactions:
- After you’ve carefully listened to the other person, try to think of a time you were in a similar situation. For example: You may have encountered a problem with a project falling apart due to in-fighting with the team.
- Remember what you felt in that situation. Maybe you didn’t handle confrontation well, so you felt apprehension and anxiety.
- Express those feelings to the other person, then share what you learned through the process.
By sharing our own insecurities and mistakes, we connect through our common humanity; and this common ground is one of the most important foundations you can lay in a relationship.
#4: Don’t Make Assumptions
Assumptions are the enemy of empathy.
To have assumptions is to harbor preconceived notions that are not based on true understanding or experience.
Often, we use assumptions as shortcuts to solve a problem, such as understanding a new contact. But when we take shortcuts, we don’t get to see the full picture. And as a result, we don’t actually “solve” the problem.
Here’s why assumptions are dangerous to empathy: When you make an assumption, the understanding you draw is rarely a good match to the problem this person is facing. As a result, the connection you try to make feels forced and unnatural.
No surprise, this often leaves the other person thinking something like, “She just doesn’t understand my situation,” or, “He’s not someone I should turn to in the future because he doesn’t listen.”
As you might imagine, these types of conclusions often cause people to withdraw.
So don’t rush empathy, and don’t try and empathize before you truly understand the situation. Take an extra five minutes to listen and ask questions before trying to connect with the other person.
#5: Use Your Imagination
Here’s the problem: You’re not going to be able to relate to every single experience from every single person you encounter. But to truly empathize, you still need some form of connection and understanding.
The ability to imagine what someone else is feeling—even if we haven’t experienced it ourselves—is critical to empathy. And one way to develop this skill is to develop your imagination.
If you enjoy reading, I recommend picking up a book and really focusing on the character’s actions and feelings. Some of the true literary classics, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, can be great studies into the full range of human emotions.
Think you don’t have time to read? Check out free time management guide: Whitespace Time Management: The Proactive Entrepreneur’s Guide to Owning Your Time and Mastering Your Priorities.
Remember: Developing Empathy is a Skill
At first, this whole practice may feel unnatural and unwieldy.
Don’t worry: That’s natural. Empathy is a skill, and any skill feels a little cumbersome at first. But the more you do it, the more natural it’ll become and the less conscious thought it’ll demand.
Keep at it and I promise: You’ll get there; and the relationships you’ll build and connections you’ll form will be worth it.