The word ‘empathy’ probably conjures up for many of us something like an image of one person hugging another as they cry on a park bench.

But dictionary.com defines empathy as:

em·pa·thy

   [em-puh-thee]

Noun

the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

By that definition, one who is skilled as an empath is one who is uniquely able to see things from another’s perspective.  By now you are probably thinking “yeah, sure, seeing things from another’s perspective is important.  So what?”

Empathy is the kind of skill that generates significant cognitive dissonance—we often think we practice it in spades but in reality we could do a lot better—both in the

frequency and the manner in which we practice it.

Before I get into how we can start to become better empaths, I want to first give you some specific examples from our daily lives as business professionals where being a skilled empath could mean the difference between success and failure.  Whether it is the difference-maker between a successful or failed product launch, or it helps to retain that rock-star employee, or generate new product ideas, empathy can be enormously helpful in our day to day business lives.

  • Product Messaging and Promotion:
    You know everything there is to know about your product, but your target market might not.  Avoid the trap so many marketers make of marketing the product to yourself and talk to them.  It’s not just about doing adequate market research to understand what the market is looking for, its being vigilant, throughout the launch and product life-cycle, of avoiding falling back into your own internal languaging and messaging.
    The key to doing this is about reminding yourself to constantly view your product’s touchpoints through your customers eyes by considering what your customers don’t know that you do know.
  • Managing People:
    Why is that person who works for you struggling to complete that project? What is she not telling you no matter how many times you ask?  Place yourself mentally squarely in her situation–in her skill set, in her challenges at her level–and you just might be able to gain enough insight to start to deal with the problem and unstuck her.
  • New Idea Generation/Product Design:
    Steve Jobs said many times that he was designing products for himself—products that he and his colleagues at Apple would want to use.  His tastes and design sensibilities were such that what he wanted turned out to be exactly what the market wanted.  For the rest of us mere mortals, by understanding what consumers experience—what their frustrations and pain points are–we can better understand gaps in the market that are ripe for innovation.  And, by successfully putting ourselves in the mindset of the target market we can make design decisions that are geared to our target users rather than to the experts that we are in our own fields.

Consequences of Non-Empathetic Thinking

There are many examples across nearly every industry where an infusion of empathetic thinking could have saved a company from a catastrophic mistake.  The most recent pertinent example is the CEO of Netflix, Reed Hasting’s recent decision and subsequent reversal to uncouple their streaming and DVD business.  With a bit of empathetic thinking Netflix would have recognized that consumers media consumption habits are still a hybrid of streaming and physical media (for more on this see How Netflix Made a Colossal Miscalculation by Splitting Into Qwikster).

Empathy is Latent In All of Us

Hopefully by now I have successfully sold you on the benefits of developing empathy as a skill.  So how do you start doing so? It is no small feat because it’s counterintuitive: the human default is to view the world from our own perspective.  I see through my eyes, hear through my ears.  For most of us that is the mindset in which we spend most of our time and why it takes a conscious effort to develop the skill.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that empathy is latent in our nervous systems, it need only be given consistent attention to allow it to bloom.  A 2007 study cited in the National Center for Biotechnology Information found contagious yawning occurs at a significantly reduced rate in autistic children than it does in normal children, supporting the theory that contagious yawning is an empathetic response (autistic children have difficulty with empathy).

(See also, this excellent article by Anne Kreamer on the Harvard Business Review Blog, The Business Case for Reading Novels on how reading novels can actually help to develop empathetic thinking).

Developing Empathy

The way to start getting better at it is to start practicing it all the time.  Initially, it is easiest to make the connection in personal relationships.  When your friend is telling you about how she got caught in a rainstorm on the way to work, pause and really try to put yourself in the situation and imagine yourself there.  When your spouse is telling you about a particularly thorny interpersonal challenge at work, put yourself mentally in the situation and really consider the moves you would make in her shoes.  For those who are visual thinkers, see yourself occupying their space, for those who are emotional thinkers, feel yourself feeling what they feel.

Ultimately, with enough practice the muscle memory will start to kick in on its own and you will find yourself thinking from another’s perspective in many of life’s situations.

A lot of this talk about empathy might sound touchy-feely to our analytical business minds, but in reality, becoming skilled at being an empath means you will start to have access to new data–the perspective of the target person/group/market–you did not previously have access to.  Access to this new data will mean better decision making.   And, if by understanding people better we are also able to treat them a little better along the way that’s a good thing too.

 

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