"When people show you who they are, believe them."
This will change your career for the better--literally. It's about showing that you care. It's a scary and foreign concept to more businesspeople than you can imagine. They believe it's soft. It should be compartmentalized for volunteering, their children, animals or people they love. Or they agree and say, "I do care! I scour the company's numbers as if they were my own checkbook!" That's caring all right, but not the kind that behavioral science shows us to be the powerful elixir that leads to more sales, higher productivity and loyalty. It's called empathy, and it is quite frankly one of the most potent and disarming tools you can learn.
Empathy is the ability to imagine and respond to the emotions another person is expressing. It's less about the actual words of the message and more about the emotion conveyed behind them. Here's a real example: I had a client who scored very low in empathy on his emotional intelligence assessment. He is a tech guy and admitted that in each of his job reviews he was told he needed to care more about others. I asked if he understood what that meant. He sarcastically said, "Yeah, it means I have to care if your 23-year-old emaciated cat died last night, when it actually has absolutely nothing to do with the work at hand." I wanted him to really get this, so I gave him a hypothetical situation.
I said, "You're going to be honored by your company at a black-tie event. You come home to an upset wife. You're in a hurry to get dressed and you notice she's being abrupt and slamming things around. You ask her what her problem is (his language), and she says she went to have her nails done for tonight and they screwed them up. She's livid. What do you say to her?"
He replies (you can't make this stuff up), "I tell her, ëHoney, why don't you put on your low-cut dress, and no one will notice your nails?'"
Yikes--a great response to keep emotions festering but not for resolution or for the incredible bonding that takes place when you use empathy.
What this client didn't get until later is that it's not about the nails. It's about his wife. If it's important to her, it's important to him and the relationship. His empathetic response could have been, "Oh babeÖyou have to be bummed. Come over here."
Whisper in her ear that she'll look sensational because she always does. ††
The same theory is true of employees (no hugging necessary). They will care about you just about as much as you care about themÖand maybe a little less. If they have an emaciated 23-year-old cat that died last night, you weighing in to say it should have been put to sleep a long time ago is probably going to shut them down and cause them to go back to their desk. Nice job. But they're still feeling bad about the cat. They'll probably seek out an empathetic ear elsewhereÖall the while not really working. They probably think you're a jerk, and they will treat the work you deem important with less gusto than if you'd taken the time to empathize. You don't have to care about cats; you do have to care about people. They are your ticket to success.
Clan of the Cave Ears and Eyes
We are wired for empathy. Before language developed, our ancestors detected slight changes in facial features, vocal (grunt) tonality and body posture to communicate. Then language came along and everything got turned upside down and continues to be; that's why cluing back in to our innate empathetic abilities is essential for any relationship to work well. Think about it. We say yes when our face says no, and no is what we really mean. We become confused when we act on the "yes" and we are met with a flash of anger because we were supposed to discern that it was really no. We say we're not angry at someone when that's exactly what we are, but we don't have the skills to communicate our anger. Resentment develops. All manner of passive-aggressive behavior sets in (passive-aggressive is when you know darned well that someone is about to trip and fall, and you let them, just to prove that you are right or to get back at them for something else). We smile and even "lie," saying that big bombshell just put on our desk is cool, when what we want to do is choke the person who did it. We expect mind-reading from the ones we love because they're supposed to know all is not right just by looking at us. There's good reason for this emotional illiteracy. Chaotic, over-stimulated modern society has dulled our abilities to empathize. All too often, we get too busy to look up, actually participate in the conversation and respond to the entire picture--face, body, tonality of communication--not just the words. If we did, we would be empathetic and we would get the real message correct far more often than we do now. We'd actually save time in the long run by avoiding having to clean up or revisit interactions to get them right. Finally, if you want to ignore your incredible ability to be able to assess or predict someone's emotional state of being and act accordingly, you get to be just like the beasts in the forest, because they don't have the ability. Only we do.
Nuts and Bolts of Empathy
If you're busy and you skipped to this section, let me recap: Empathy is about caring for the person, not necessarily the content of what they say; we're wired to be empathetic, but many have blunted their innate ability to do it. Now the skills.
- Stay in the conversation. Poet David Whyte once explained the difference in gender communications by saying that women want to have a conversation and men respond by saying, "Didn't we already have one?" What we often miss is that the relationship IS the conversation, and when the conversation is over, the relationship is over. You might not recognize all the emotions flying around during the conversation, and some of them might be scary, but talking about them is far more productive than ignoring them. They don't go away, those negative emotions; they fester and pop up at the most inopportune times. From a business standpoint, this means communicate with people. Ask them HOW they are doing at least as often as WHAT they are doing. Mean it. Listen to the answer. Encourage honesty by making the eyeball-to-eyeball conversation something you do often, not just an event at review time.
- Actively listen. You can't even begin to empathize if you're not paying attention. Put down your reading, turn your eyes from the computer and actually listen. Look at the person talking. Watch their face. Do the words match it? If not, the face is telling the real story. If you say to someone, "Do you like your job?" and they hesitantly reply, "Hmm, yeah," they are probably not saying yes. They're saying sort of. That's where you explore, and this is where empathy buys you loyalty and fewer miscommunications, saving you time. That takes us to the next step.
- Explore. Take the example above and explore it with questions or empathetic statements. Instead of doing the old nonempathetic routine and responding to only the words by saying "Good, glad to hear it" you'll say, "Sounds like it's not perfect for you." And then let them respond. Ask more follow-up questions or make more empathetic statements. An empathetic statement is about the other person and the emotion they must be feeling. Here are examples just from that small hesitant response above:
- "You don't sound convinced."
- "You don't seem too excited about it."
- "It feels like its just okay for you."
The point with empathy is to show you're listening intently. There are few things that feel more caring than your undivided attention. Even if you label the emotions wrong, the speaker will probably correct you, "NoÖit's not that. It's just that I feel like you don't think I'm doing a good job." Now you have the real crux of the matter. Go back to step one and have a conversation now. You're not overlooking it, chancing some kind of resentment or sabotage or withholding of discretionary effort (the above-and-beyond work we all give when we feel validated and charged up).
You're not going to get all of empathy in one mouthful if you're not already practicing it. It will feel awkward when you begin to actually stay in the conversation and pay attention. But what you get in return is that people will care about you, your projects and your success. It's an "I" for an "I" when it comes to empathy.
Scott Halford, CSP is President of Complete Intelligence, LLC. He speaks worldwide and writes about emotional intelligence and brain-based success behaviors. He is the best-selling author of Be a Shortcut: The Secret Fast Track to Business Success.