What does empathy actually mean? According to the Oxford dictionary it means: “the power of identifying oneself mentally with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation.” How this plays out in certain situations can actually be a tool that can make you more or less companionate.
I see the use of empathy through three different lenses.
As a sales professional, coach and trainer, I encourage my clients to use empathy as a way to connect and build rapport with their prospects or clients. By ‘walking in their shoes’ and appreciating their areas of concern, they are better equipped to understand their client’s perspective and provide information in a way that is more compelling to them. This will often result in influencing the client to feel that your solution or product will meet their objectives.
This is all well and good, however this same technique used in different environments can have negative consequences. As a leader if you are coaching an employee or peer, you may find that by using empathy and trying to ‘comprehend’ you have actually picked up the emotions of the coachee. You find their ‘dissatisfaction with a colleague,’ now has become your dissatisfaction with a colleague. Somewhere along the way you have picked up the negative energy of your coachee by over empathizing, resulting in your inability to be an effective coach. In order to show empathy while coaching you can ask questions that allow the coachee to come to their own conclusions without bringing your feelings or emotions into the situation. As a leader in an organization, it is best in the coaching environment to sit back and allow individuals to come to their own conclusions first, as that will increase the chance of commitment to the outcome, and you still have demonstrated a genuine interest.
Now take empathy and apply it to a social situation. You are having a conversation with a friend, and you have a lot on your mind. You ‘need’ to talk (some of you guys may be wondering what I am talking about). You start sharing a story about something that has been preoccupying you. From your perspective, it is quite unique circumstance and very important to you. As you start sharing your preoccupation, your friend listens and then says, “I understand, I remember when I felt that way,’ and proceeds to tell their story. So after some time you continue to air your frustration with your own situation, only to again be followed by ‘I understand, I remember when…’ Committed to expressing your frustration with your situation, you persist. During this conversation all attention is now on the empathizer, leaving you void of feeling any genuine empathy.
So the question remains, what is the appropriate amount of empathy? I think we can take lessons from all three situations. In a sales environment, it always wise to understand and appreciate the other person’s perspective. As a coach and leader, it is advantageous that we remove ‘us’ from the emotional element of someone’s situation, and truly be an active listener. From a conversational perspective, control the need to continuously engage in the tennis match of saying ‘I understand and here is my story and why…’, making the conversation about you and not the person with the issue.
The skills of a honed empathetic individual are active listening, verbal and kinetic acknowledgement, and seeking to understand without judgment. Utilizing such well-managed skills would make us better salespeople, leaders and quite frankly, friends.
Action: If someone has an issue to discuss regardless of the circumstance, I challenge you to just listen with friendly eyes, and an occasional nod. Let them have their time to explain their situation, further inquire, which will be empathy enough. I guarantee at another point you will have an active listener and it will be amazing how your issue just dissipates.