em·pa·thy /ˈempəTHē/ — noun: The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
When you have empathy, it means you can understand what a person is feeling in a given moment, and understand why other people’s actions make sense to them. Empathy helps us to communicate our ideas in a way that makes sense to others, and it helps us understand others when they communicate with us.
The chart above shows data from Google Trends, tracking the number of times someone searched Google for “empathy.” You’ve probably noticed a few other empathy-related trends in recent years:
- Gone are the days of “who, what, when, where, and why” in the first paragraph of a news story or broadcast. Now everything starts with a story, typically a real-life human consequence of the news they’re about to report.
- Have you perhaps also noticed how many more restaurants have open kitchens so that the diners can see their food cooked and the cooks can see the diners?
- In your company meetings, is a perfunctory “How was your weekend?” no longer sufficient? Are more and more of your meetings, emails, and work conversations including a requisite “chit-chat” time?
There’s data behind each one of those trends that makes a strong case for the value of fostering empathy:
- Humans telling their own story mean that other humans are more likely to pay attention to the story.
- When chefs can see their customers, they produce better food.
- When examining test results, if a photo of the patient is included with imaging exam results, radiologists took greater care to ensure that the results were interpreted correctly.
It turns out that humans are motivated by other humans, particularly ones they can feel empathy for. P&G and GM figured this out decades ago. Their research showed that people were most strongly motivated to purchase by “people like me” talking about a product—more strongly than all the ads, experts, and influencers combined.
In the wake of the 2016 election there was a lot of hand-wringing over the people that “didn’t feel heard.” Many journalists blamed the Democrat’s loss on people in Rust Belt areas that felt that no one was listening to them. That’s an example of empathy in action, or, actually, lack of empathy. If a customer or a voter or your spouse doesn’t perceive that you are empathetic to their issues then they are probably not going to do whatever you would like them to do.
As it happens, empathy is a stronger motivator than many others we may have tried. Greater empathy in your workplace—never mind in your everyday life—can:
- Encourage innovation and creative problem solving. Google spent years studying what makes a team effective. It turns out that teams work better together when they feel empathy for each other and share each other’s lives. (Which probably explains a lot of the chit-chat in corporate emails these days.)
- Help resolve conflicts. One of the first things hostage negotiators are taught is how to put themselves in the hostage taker’s shoes.
- Avoid conflicts before they happen. If you have an understanding of the full context of a conflict—i.e., what is going on in the lives of the people involved—you may be able to find common ground.
- Keep conflicts from escalating. When at least one side, if not both, can see the other’s point of view, you are more likely to find a resolution.
- Remove barriers to action. When you understand other’s concerns it’s easier to identify problems and move forward.
So whether you’re dealing with your team, your department, your business unit, your opponent in a crisis, or a hostile reporter, understanding how it feels to be in the others’ shoes is a good place to start. ∞