How to Understand and Get Along With Others
A finely tuned ear is at the core of understanding and getting along with others.
Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of someone else coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.
Simply put, it is being able to put yourself in the shoes of others and communicate that understanding back to the other person. Having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean that you will proceed to help everyone in need, however, it is often a vital first step towards any compassionate action.
You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself— John Steinbeck
The pandemic and reckoning on racial issues have brought the need for skills in empathy into sharp focus in both private interactions at home as well as in public discourse. The need for compassion and understanding is a recurring theme that has shown up during interactions between work colleagues, partners, family members or strangers we run into at the grocery store.
The need for skills in empathy also extends to leaders at every level; from political leaders who we expect to guide us with compassion to corporate executives and managers who we look to for courageous leadership.
How can you build skills in empathy to help you sense other people’s feelings and perspectives and show sensitivity and understanding of their perspectives regardless of whether you agree or not with them?
The art of listening
A finely tuned ear is at the core of empathy. Those who cannot or do not listen come across as indifferent or uncaring, which in turn makes others less communicative. Studies have shown that the average person can only remember 50% of what they’ve heard straight after they’ve heard it! So effective listening is an art form.
It is often easy to listen to the words being said without truly grasping the meaning behind them. Listening well and deeply means going beyond what is said by asking questions and restating in your own words what you hear to be sure you truly understand, this is active listening.
A sign of having truly heard someone else is to respond appropriately, even if that means making some changes in what you do. Now, just how far you should go in adjusting your action is another issue, however, taking that pause to consider the point of view being communicated and putting yourself in the shoes of the person you are communicating with is key to acting more empathetically.
Improved listening skills will help you to work better with others, promote your innovative thinking and lead to more effective and meaningful communication with people in your life.
How to actively listen:
- Focus on the message being communicated, avoid distractions and be aware of your preconceptions.
- Internalize the message being communicated to understand what is being said.
- Ask questions to clarify and ensure that your interpretation of the message is correct.
- Observe non-verbal signals accompanying the message. For example, is the person you are communicating with showing excitement or disappointment?
- Show interest and concentration throughout the exchange.
The extremes of empathy
For empathy to work, there has to be integrity and genuineness involved. Without truly caring, empathy will come off as fake, hollow and manipulative, a social pose that disintegrates quickly when it is recognized by others. Researchers who have studied manipulative people find that those who are most motivated by opportunistic desire to use people for their gain tend to be the poorest at empathy.
Sometimes it is also important not to go overboard in focusing on catering to people’s emotional or physical needs at your own expense. In situations where the perceived cost of empathy is too high — for example when helping someone else puts you in danger or when you are being taken advantage of, you might have to blunt your sympathy.
There may be wisdom in tempering empathy when you identify too strongly with someone else’s need. You are more prone to go to extremes in helping them, even when that decision harms the overall good. That being said, the head alone in cold logic, without the heart can make decisions that will backfire.
The economics of empathy
Corporations and businesses are beginning to be awakened to the benefits of empathy due to compelling economic reasons. In a time of heightened competition for customer loyalty, empathy is becoming the most efficient and sustaining way for companies to retain and grow their business.
For example, at Ford Motors, empathic designs are often used in the process of upgrading or reinventing vehicle designs. This strategy would usually involve engineers given intensive contact with owners of the vehicles they are trying to reinvent or upgrade.
Instead of old methods where market researchers would lead focus groups of car owners and distill results, engineers instead spent weeks talking to people who had bought the vehicle design they were trying to upgrade. Their task was then to get a sense of what the owners loved about the car and then design it. This lead to designs that were more in line with what users wanted.
Based on my personal experience in sales, the old stereotype that sales go to the highly charming or outgoing salesperson doesn’t hold up. It isn’t enough to be a fast-talking, warm extrovert. The best salespeople I have seen are the ones who were most empathic and genuinely cared about the needs and concerns of others. These high performers through this approach often won the trust of their clients and by result a lot of business.
Empathy is often dismissed as one of those soft skills that are nice to have, but not necessarily an essential skill for career or financial success.
Skills like critical thinking, strategic planning or financial planning are often considered more urgent especially as we find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic, massive lay-offs and financial recession that is affecting most people. Discounting empathy would be a fatal mistake and a losing strategy.
People who are competent in empathy are attentive to emotional cues, practice active listening, show sensitivity to the perspectives of others and help others based on the understanding of their needs and feelings.
Empathy is essential as an emotional guidance system, piloting you to getting along with more people and accomplishing more. Getting along with more people leads to superior performance, better and healthier relationships and more opportunities to move your career ahead. Equally, genuineness and honesty are equally important to ensure that you are not faking it and coming across as manipulative or going overboard and not carefully weighing the cost of empathy.
I am a business owner, consultant and creative entrepreneur. I bring a lot of energy, passion and optimism to any project I am involved in. I drive to maximize my talents and potentials alongside those I work with. I bring a wealth of business ownership and coaching experience.