5 Ways to Put Empathy to Work Right Now

Man holding eye glasses

Where do you start when you are told you need to “have empathy” with another person? It’s like trying to tell someone to “see” or “hear” or use another sense. It’s really abstract. Empathy is like one of our senses. Intuitive and present, standing by whenever we want to tap into it. Yet empathy is in decline according to studies over the past 20 years. Have we become blind to how to create empathy with others?

A study from the University of Michigan, published in 2010, would indicate yes, we have lost sight of empathy. Surveys from more than 70 universities between 1979 and 2009 found a 40% decline in the ability to see the point of view of classmates, with a noticeable drop starting in 2001. While the direct causes weren’t identified, we can hypothesize that the growing reliance on self-directed technology as well as the limited time kids were given to be bored contributed to the decline. Open-ended, pretend play enables kids to step in and out of the shoes of favorite superheroes or characters. Kids imagine what it might be like to be a doll or a truck, and thereby have empathy with what their life must be like.

We are born with two types of empathy – cognitive and affective. Cognitive Empathy is about taking someone else’s perspective (e.g., “I see your point of view”). Affective, or “emotional” Empathy is the ability to feel another person’s emotions as if you were that person (e.g., Having a ‘heart to heart’ with a close friend).

In the workplace, cognitive empathy is the skill we need to strengthen and master. Affective empathy is powerful and has its place, but emotions can cloud decision-making and be difficult for others to relate to, especially in the workplace. Additionally, not everyone is able to connect to their own emotions, let alone the emotions of someone else.

Focusing on cognitive empathy in workplace interactions will enable you to better connect and communicate in most situations. This leads to better collaboration and decision making. Applied to marketing communications, it showcases a stronger understanding of the consumer’s needs and their life, which consumers appreciate, building a better bond with the brand.

At Ignite 360 we take empathy seriously. We have identified and developed 5 Steps to Empathy.

Here’s how you can take action right now.
Build and Apply Empathy at Work in 5 Steps

Step 1: Dismantle Judgment

If you can’t get beyond your desire to judge, you will have a hard time building empathy. Judgment is like a brick wall we can’t see past. We can’t climb over it either. We have to dismantle judgment in order to see and hear people for who they are.

Judgment is made up of stereotypes, assumptions, and biases often from past experiences. It may be confirmation or projection bias, or even cognitive dissonance. You have to recognize your judgment and break it down so you can move beyond it.

Consider the statement, “I’ll get back to you in a bit.” What do you consider to be ‘a bit?’ Now ask a few colleagues the same question but don’t reveal your answer. Once you’ve gathered the answers of a few people, you’ll notice they differ from each other. It’s your assumption, a form of judgment, that leads you to presume your answer to the question is the one with which everyone agrees.

Your Empathy Opportunity

Recognize when you are being judgmental and dismantle it. Where is your judgment coming from? Bias? A stereotype? Perhaps a past lived experience you’ve had. Pay attention to when you might be expressing judgment. Stop yourself and acknowledge the judgment. Then, put it to the side and move on to Step 2.

Step 2: Ask Good Questions

There are many good questions to be asked. The best ones tend to be open and exploratory in nature. The goal in Step 2 is to ask a question that the respondent can take you wherever their story leads, rather than where you want to go.

A common mistake people make is not asking open questions. If a question can be answered with a “yes/no” or short answer, it is not going to elicit the kind of foundational, exploratory information you need to build empathy.

Which of these questions is open and which is closed?

“Do you prefer meetings in person or on video?”

“What do you think of the different ways to hold meetings?”

The second question is open – it allows the respondent to elaborate and share their point of view. Ask good questions to get great answers.

Your empathy opportunity:

The next time you ask a question, make it a good one. Keep it open. Keep it exploratory. Don’t “lead the witness.” Be aware of how you are phrasing your questions. Stop yourself and start over if you find yourself not asking good questions.

Step 3: Actively Listen

Even with your judgment dismantled and primed with good questions, you must listen actively. This goes beyond just what you hear. You ‘listen’ with all your senses. Reading body language, looking at the environment, observing the smells present. All those combine into a holistic form of ‘listening.’

The next time you are speaking with someone, notice how their body language adjusts during a conversation. Are they sitting forward, nodding, engaged with you? Or are they sitting back with their arms crossed? That’s an indication they are closed to what you are hearing. Eye contact is another one to look out for. Are the eyes on you or is eye contact broken when they are answering your question?

Of course, don’t forget to listen with your ears too!

Your empathy opportunity:

Practice your listening skills. Be present in a conversation. Put your phone down. Hide the web browser on your screen. Make eye contact whether you are in person or on Zoom. Notice how they are communicating with you – both verbally and non-verbal. What are you hearing from them? What can you detect that isn’t being said but may be relevant? Regardless if it’s a Teams meeting or a socially distant walk, active listening is always important. How is that more/less or the same from what you’ve experienced before?

Step 4: Integrate into Understanding

Now that you’ve cleared the pathway for another person’s expression to reach you, it’s time to make room in your head for someone else’s point of view. A common misconception people have with empathy is that it means you have to give up your own values or believes and adopt someone else’s. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Empathy means that you make space and acknowledge that yes, there is another way of doing things, that someone else might have another point of view, different from your own.

Your empathy opportunity:

Take a socially charged issue, like gun control. Identify your perspective and then acknowledge the point of view of the other side. Try it again. Don’t give up and don’t discard your own values (unless you are inclined to do so). Empathy takes practice. And if you find that judgment is getting in your way, return back to Step 1 and start again!

Step 5: Use Solution Imagination

Now that you have acknowledged someone else has a different point of view, you will want to carry forward the idea of being in their shoes. Continue to imagine what that is like if you were them. How would you respond to and solve a problem with their point of view in mind?

One of the simplest ways to communicate your newfound cognitive empathy skill is to say, “I see your point of view.” You can also reiterate a key point or piece of information that you heard. Then you can navigate toward a solution that respects their position but also creates a win for you.

As you get into the habit of starting your sentences with “I see your point of view,” you will notice that it starts to feel disingenuous and awkward to not have their point of view while you speak.

Your empathy opportunity:

“I see your point of view.” Use that phrase to start conversations with colleagues, friends, or family when you are discussing a topic and you might have a differing viewpoint. Imagine what might be driving their perspective. And if you can’t, try Step 2 – Asking Good Questions – and continue your journey.

And then…

You are ready to go. Aim for progress not perfection. We are all human. Give yourself permission to fail and license to try again.

The 5 Steps to Empathy are shared on all Ignite 360 insights projects and offered in a training program, Empathy Camp, which we often partner with a rousing round of Lifeology™ played with clients and consumers in a 1:1 setting. More empathy information is available here.

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