A Call for Empathy: Key to Effective Communication and Relationships

We need more empathy.

Empathy is fundamental to building trusting and effective relationships.

We’ve seen lack of empathy on the world stage in the recent U.S. presidential and Brexit elections. Pollsters and political party leaders didn’t understand voters. Politicians spent more time criticizing than listening to each other. Citizens have taken sides and set up simplified caricatures of others without fully seeking to understand them.

We need more empathy in the political realm, but we also need more empathy in communities, families, business and all aspects of life.

Chalkboard Business WomenEmpathy is the most underused and underdeveloped skill for communicating, building trust, influencing and resolving conflicts. Yet it is fundamental and powerful. If success in life and work is about building effective relationships, then success in relationships is about demonstrating empathy.

Empathy is not agreement.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes: identifying with and understanding the thoughts, feelings and experiences of someone else. It doesn’t mean you completely understand. It doesn’t mean you agree. Demonstrating empathy means you seek to understand and seek to help another person feel understood.

Empathy is not complex, but it’s not easy.

Why is it so scarce and so difficult?

  • It’s threatening. If I truly seek to understand another’s point of view, I might discover my closely held position is limited or exposed. And I might even be challenged to change my thinking.
  • It’s emotional. Perhaps even more scary than an unwanted perspective is an unwanted feeling. As I put myself in that other person’s shoes, it may feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable. And I might feel some of what the other person is feeling. When I experience strong emotions, the last thing I want to do is seek to understand. Physiologically, my body goes into self-protection mode, and social skills are even more difficult.
  • It’s humbling. If I am genuinely empathetic, not only is it possible that I am reminded that I don’t know everything, I might also learn that another person is not as crazy, stupid, wrong or mean as I had made them out to be. And to the extent I was boosting myself up by putting them down, I may fall down a notch or two.

Demonstrating empathy takes effort and practice.

To demonstrate empathy, most of us need to be continually reminded of these tips from Captain Obvious:

  1. Talk less, listen more. If you tend to talk a lot, shoot to listen 70% of the time in each conversation. Come to the conversation prepared with key questions versus statements.
  2. Listen to connect. Listening for information and listening to solve problems can be better than not listening at all, but they don’t necessarily build trusting relationships. Actively listening with empathy is a powerful and conversationally intelligent approach.
  3. Let the other person go first. This is especially tough when you have a strong point of view. But when you’ve done your best to hear and put yourself in the other person’s shoes first, you will be more effective in stating your view in an empathetic way when it’s your turn.
  4. Let people know you understand before moving on.  Discipline yourself to take the ‘extra’ step of restating, paraphrasing or somehow confirming that you heard and understand them before they move to the next topic or before you explain yourself. This slows the conversation down, but it can help lower the temperature if it’s too heated and will likely save time in the long run.

Opportunities to practice empathy abound. All we have to do is look on the news, across the aisle, or across the hall. Where is your next opportunity to demonstrate empathy?

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. As a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps executives and their teams achieve great results and relationships.  You can reach him at jbaker@people-results.com or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.