“You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”
To walk in someone else’s shoes is to see the world from their perspective. That’s empathy, and empathy helps get business done, better and faster. You want to encourage empathy in your organization, so here are some quick tips on how to cultivate it.
First of all, if you google “how to build corporate empathy” you’ll find lots of advice. Most of it is variations on three basic themes:
- Communicate better. Listen better, and make sure people feel heard.
- Have an open mind about other people’s situations and problems. Make an effort to understand and be flexible concerning their individual circumstances.
- Provide empathy training.
In my experience, there are a few basic, practical actions you can take to start on the road to empathy. Here you go:
1. Test your own empathy.
Empathy starts at home, so evaluate your personal ability to perceive the emotions of others by taking this quiz. Get your coworkers to take this test, and they’ll be encouraged to start thinking about empathy and its role in the workplace. Plus, it just might confirm what you’ve already guessed about the psychopathic tendencies of your boss.
2. Do your homework.
Whether you’re dealing with a boss, a client, an influencer, a reporter, or a coworker, Google them first! Or do what you can to find out as much as you possibly can about their interests, their concerns, and the context of their lives. Remember the goal of empathy is to feel what it’s like to walk in their shoes. Use that information to understand their motivations and tailor your actions or communications to their individual situations.
3. Do some research: Check in with your stakeholders.
I used to be a big believer in the notion, “Never ask a question you don’t want to hear the answer to.” Now I know that in almost all cases I do want to hear that answer—even if it’s not the one I want to hear.
As us researchers remind clients all the time, “the data is the data.” If there is a problem, you want to hear it direct from the source, not on Twitter or a consumer complaint blog. Ideally you’d check in regularly with stakeholders through a quick pulse survey that tests the health of your relationships.
4. Pay attention: Context is king.
Consider every encounter and relationship in the context of what else is going on at the time. Whether it’s a reporter on a deadline, a client who just lost out on a promotion, or an influencer who is the middle of a personal crisis, knowing the background of a person or a situation is the key to a good relationship. Social media can be a great source.
Before the ethics folks cracked down on us, whenever we had a client gong through a PR crisis we’d send them a care package—generally their favorite alcoholic beverage and cookies. When a reporter I know tweeted that he was hungry and didn’t have time to get lunch, I had a friend deliver him a sandwich. Just knowing that someone is paying attention helps build those bonds.
5. Build empathy on a regular basis.
It’s not enough to start an email with “How was your weekend?” or a conference call with a discussion of the weather. Regularly schedule non-work meetups, and build in some empathy-enhancing interactions.
Resa Pearson, the boss from whom I probably learned the most in my career, is a master at building team empathy. I’ll never forget an exercise she orchestrated at Hewlett Packard, back when it was setting out to compete head to head with Apple. She assembled a team from in- and outside of HP, and marched us off to a retreat in the Los Gatos hills, where we thought we would learn about our assignments.
Instead we learned about each other; our loves, weaknesses, and strengths. Our “assignment” was to produce skits describing various aspects of our jobs, and the questions we had to answer revealed our secrets and our dreams. In the process we forged bonds that enabled us to survive grueling work hours, impossible deadlines, and produce truly awesome work. (Including the oh-so-successful launch of a little product called the LaserJet printer in a six-week window.) Believe it or not we are all still friends 35 years later. Such is the strength of empathy. ∞