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7th December 2019 5 min read

Empathy, a way to mutual success

Categories — Thoughts

Extolling the value of collaboration is nothing new. We all appreciate the importance and benefit of cross-pollinating knowledge, experience and ideas. But for much of the time, this process often stays within familiar boundaries.


Every organisation has its own unique methodology and approach when it comes to service delivery. It may be underpinned by an efficient workflow, state of the art software, a high performing team, big-picture thinking, collaborative partnerships. In our agency, our methodology is underpinned by a highly-effective soft skill: empathy.

Empathy is the ability to recognise and relate to someone else’s circumstances, motivations and emotions. It is a capacity to see the world through the eyes of others and extend compassion through a deep understanding of their challenges and conditions. 

In his book, ‘Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain”, Dr. Antonio Damasio outlines how empathy is an integral part of building and enriching human connection. In his research, he demonstrates how patients, with damage in the areas of the brain associated with empathy, experienced difficulties in relating positively to other humans. 

Research professor and author, Dr. Brené Brown, discusses it at length alongside the topics of courage, vulnerability, sympathy, and shame. She describes empathy as a driver for human connection – it helps people feel included and understood. 

“Empathy is a choice and it’s a vulnerable choice. Because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” – Dr. Brené Brown at 2013 RSA Talk, the Power of Vulnerability.

Many people often mistake empathy with sympathy. It is important to recognise, even though the two are similar, they are not the same.  In the article ‘Sympathy vs. Empathy in UX’ published by Nielsen Norman Group, Sarah Gibbons discusses what differentiates these two concepts. By sympathising with someone, you are acknowledging their challenges but not necessarily fully grasping or feeling their emotional state. Gibbons uses the following visual to demonstrate the journey from sympathy to deep compassion.

Image Credit: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/sympathy-vs-empathy-ux/

When we exercise empathy, we withhold judgement and encourage people’s trust. It enables us to form a deeper mutual bond and make more informed and objective decisions. In fact, empathy goes beyond just a capacity to internalise what others are feeling or thinking. It can and should be applied as a foundation for company culture and communication; in any ideation process; as a leadership approach and even as success criteria by which a company is measured. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine that an organisation, large or small, stands a better chance at long-term shared success and prosperity, where everyone is recognised, heard and valued. 

On the 30th of May 2019, New Zealand released the first-ever well-being budget. According to the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, this budget is redefining government spending, which is now going to be based on kindness and empathy.

‘Our five Wellbeing Budget priorities show how we have broadened our definition of success for our country to one that incorporates not just the health of our finances, but also of our natural resources, people and communities.’ 

Although the positive impact of such progressive decision-making is yet to be seen, without a doubt it is one of the most people-centric political approaches worldwide to date. 

As businesses are becoming more challenged by the current socio-economic climate and changing consumer trends, it is forcing us to go deeper, look harder at our motivations and come back to people-centric values. Empathy acts as the necessary cure to address these challenges.

In a report, 2016 Empathy Index, UK consulting company ‘The Empathy Business’ published insights after investigating the company culture of 170 businesses on their financial indexes. Belinda Parmar, founder, and CEO of The Empathy Business, related to the findings of the report: ‘The top 10 companies in the Global Empathy Index 2015 increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10, and generated 50% more earnings (defined by market capitalization). In our work with clients, we have found a correlation as high as 80% between departments with higher empathy and those with high performers.’.

Author and a science journalist, Dr. Daniel Goleman, wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “What Makes a Leader?“. He talks about three core reasons for empathy to be applied to every business:

  • It is necessary when creating ecosystems within multi-disciplinary teams, as all members have their own unique needs and processes 
  • It is an effective tool for peaceful conflict resolution within multicultural working environments as businesses grow globally
  • It helps in escalating challenges around talent retention, as people are more actively challenging company leaders to consider their unique needs and points of view

The benefits that the application of empathy brings to business is exponential. Once it is weaved into the fabric of company culture, it shows an almost immediate increase in stakeholder loyalty, collaboration, productivity, and innovation. This collectively adds a unique competitive advantage in the market.

Multiple studies of research directly relate empathy to success in sales, product development, and overall team performance.

You can view some of the findings here: (http://www.eiconsortium.org/). 

So what exactly does it mean to apply empathy to your own personal life or work? And can it be cultivated? 

The answer is yes! Here are a few tips on how you can practice and improve your empathy skills:                                     

 

  • Practice mutual respect, even if you don’t share someone’s point of view or life choices. Withhold all judgment when listening to ideas especially when they don’t align with yours. By inviting a broader point of view, you are opening a door to an unexplored potential. 
  • Take time to actively listen to your friends, customers, employees, managers, and shareholders. Do not assume you are always the one who has the right answer. Pay attention to body language, tone of voice and even the pauses in between words. At times, silence says it all. Do not interrupt or try and assert your point of view. Creating a safe space to self-express is paramount.
  • Respond compassionately to people’s questions, anxieties, and doubts. Remember there may be a multitude of variables and conditions that influence their behaviours and points of view. Recognise people’s emotions, even if negative. Being neglected and ignored will stifle their creativity, productivity, and critical thinking.
  • Motivate people based on their unique needs and personality types. By nourishing people’s authentic capabilities you are opening doors to better richer ideas, energised team or even more versatile service offering.
  • Stay present by smiling and referring to people by their name. Showing that you are a keen interest in what they have to say, will allow space to relate on a deeper level. Actively engage by asking questions and showing your interest in people’s point of view. Giving others space to freely express their thoughts will result in positively unpredictable, original and, in many cases, truly surprising insights
  • Give recognition and praise freely. But remember it has to come from a genuine place, you are not doing anyone any favours by just massaging someone’s ego.

Most importantly, remain authentic and vulnerable through the process. Allow it to challenge your perspective. At the end of the day, the greatest growth comes from the things you don’t already know.

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