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THE POWER OF EMPATHY

What if instead of confinement the word of the year had been empathy? This skill deserves its own place in the universe of soft skills and this article explains the reasons why it should be used and how it can impact in our daily lives.

Now that “confinement” has just been proclaimed word of the year in Spain according to Fundéu (a foundation that promotes Spanish language), I would like to talk about another key word of the past year, “empathy“, and I am convinced that many of you will have experienced or practised it during these strange times.

The most widespread definition of empathy is “the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes“, as if we could wear special glasses to see things from another person’s perspective, thus enriching our perception of the situation.

Although many people still confuse empathy with sympathy or compassion, they are in fact different concepts. Sympathy requires us to have affinities with the other person, when one can perfectly be empathetic towards a stranger. As for compassion, we usually express it towards people who are experiencing suffering, to alleviate their pain, whereas we can empathise with someone regardless of their emotional state.

Empathy belongs to the family of “soft” skills that paradoxically help us to be “stronger” in many circumstances of our lives.

In the professional environment, empathy is very useful whenever we need to get to know better the people with whom we are going to interact:

  • The participants in a training session.
  • The attendees of a public presentation.
  • The client in a business meeting.
  • The other party in a negotiation process.
  • The participants in a business meeting.
  • Our manager or collaborator in a development interview.

We will try, in each case, to gather information about these people just to know how to adjust our actions and behaviour towards them in order to achieve a specific objective: explain a concept, sell a product, close a deal or resolve a conflict.

An example of a tool that can help us in this task is the empathy map. Although it was originally designed for commercial purposes (to get to know our clients better), it can be adapted to any type of interlocutor. This map proposes 6 key questions to answer.

The three questions at the top of the map help us to understand people better, reflecting on their attitude in public, their possible interests, and concerns, as well as other people or things that may influence them.

The three questions at the bottom of the map focus on the possible expectations of these people: how they see us, what they want to achieve and what they want to avoid in their next interaction with us.

Even if we do not know all the answers, the simple act of asking these questions helps us to improve our perception and understanding of the other person, and to achieve what is called “insight”.

Of course, empathy is also very useful on a personal level: who wouldn’t like to be able to better understand their partner, their children, or their friends and to be able to understand what might be going on in the mind or heart of someone close to them? Even in cases where we have a lot of information at our disposal, it is still important to cultivate our curiosity, to take an interest in this person, to sharpen our powers of observation and to take our intuition into account.

We might conclude that empathy is somewhat selfish in that we use it for very specific purposes and in our own self-interest. However, empathy also has profoundly human characteristics.

Empathy requires us to be able to take the first step, as Stephen R. Covey wrote in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand then be understood”. It would be easy to wait for others to start by putting themselves in our shoes. In fact, this is what people driven by pride and arrogance often do, and it is the reason why many conflicts fail to be resolved because everyone waits for the other person to make the first move. Showing empathy consists of making this gesture of generosity, making the effort to understand the other person (or at least trying to) even if we do not agree with them.

Although the starting point being may be a need of ours, what we achieve through empathy is a better understanding between people, from a more balanced perspective, in the manner of the win-win strategy so often used in negotiation. This initial effort to get closer to others not only helps us to achieve our objectives but also makes it easier for the other party, feeling more understood, to begin to change their attitude towards us. It is not so much a cause-effect relationship as a seed we sow for healthier relationships.

The context also influences people’s ability to empathise. Being immersed in a situation as difficult as in the past years has made us, in general, more sensitive, and receptive to the circumstances of others. We observe how empathy is acting as a catalyst for more humane values in our society.

As another year of relative confinement draws to a close, empathy remains an ideal tool for fighting isolation and bringing people together. Let’s make use of it!

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