“Active listening requires a disciplined effort to silence all that internal conversation while we’re attempting to listen to another human being. It requires a sacrifice, an extension of ourselves, to block out the noise and truly enter another person’s world – even for a few minutes. Active listening is attempting to see things as the speaker sees them and attempting to feel things as the speaker feels them. This identification with the speaker is referred to as empathy and requires a great deal of effort.” (Hunter, 1998)
As human beings, we have needs that must be met. We want things as well. These two things are often easily confused with one another and it’s not difficult to blur the line between the “needs” and the “wants”. If you are in a leadership position, with part of your job being to make sure that the needs of those you work with are met, empathy is a powerful tool to wield and should not be overlooked nor set aside.
Regardless of rank, title, or standing, at our core (as well as what feeds/drives it), we are all pretty much the same. We all need food, water, and shelter – the basics for survival. These three elements will allow us to get by, to live. However, in order to progress – to learn, grow, and evolve as we are meant to – there are other needs that must be met, such as:
· Being listened to
· Being understood
· Being able to relate to others (and vice versa)
· Being accepted/respected
This is how we as human beings were designed to function. We need these things in order to develop ourselves personally. The funny thing is that most of us aren’t usually aware of these needs, either in ourselves or in others. Either that or it gets swept under the rug to make room for more “pressing” matters
So why is empathy important in the workplace?
Essentially, it is about putting yourself in another’s shoes - being able to experience and feel what they are experiencing and feeling – and acting/reacting accordingly. This can difficult as it requires us to step out of our comfort zones and take on a different perspective than we are accustomed to. We must be able to view the world through a lens which we are not familiar with, seeing things in a light that is different from our own – from what we’ve become comfortable with. We would expect (or at least hope) that others would do this for us so why do we not do this for others? Probably because, as the quote at the top states, it takes a bit of work. Empathy does not happen overnight. It’s a choice and it takes practice. Just as each individual is unique, so too will be how you empathize with them.
In the ever-changing business world, engaging others with empathy is vital. It is necessary for breaking down barriers and building relationships. It involves being fully present with those around you – extending yourself to better understand others and quieting the mental noise in your own head while someone else is speaking (the difference between “listening” and “hearing”). It involves discovering and meeting needs, and, if you don’t meet those needs, chances are that someone else will. This goes for both employees AND customers (as well as personal relationships). If you are not giving them the proper time, respect, and consideration, then, inevitably, they will seek it out from other sources. At the very least, this will result in increased employee turnover and customer attrition.
I know, this sounds a bit touchy-feely, but it must be, otherwise it wouldn’t be empathy. It’s much easier to be sympathetic towards others, but that’s not a component for progression. Take a garden, for example. If the plants need water and aren’t getting any so they die and then you feel bad for them, that’s sympathy. However, if you supply the water once understanding the plant’s need for it, that is empathy. Actions speak louder than words or feelings, and the same goes here.
Using empathy to help build trust will aid in developing a cohesive team with strong relationships and a better understanding of one another. People will feel safer speaking up and confronting conflict, and will be able to function much more efficiently. Exploring empathy - both in your own life and the lives of those you work with (or work for/work for you) – will help to improve any aspect that you’re focusing on, whether it’s increasing team performance, helping others, or simply gaining an amount of satisfaction that can never come with a price tag.
Hunter, J. C. (1998). The Servant. New York: Crown Business.
[Image at top of article: N. Filbert, “Empathy…Intersubjectivity…efforts…” January 20, 2014 via Bing, CC BY 4.0]