Firstly, empathy is crucial to creativity and innovation. Only by really spending time thinking through the needs, frustrations, and aspirations of our colleagues and clients can we identify what they really need from us.
It is also critical for teamwork and leadership. It enables us to be sensitive to the motivations and frustrations of others. It helps us to influence more effectively by stepping into the shoes of others and adjusting our behaviour accordingly.
What is empathy exactly?
Empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, but they actually are separate ideas that can be usefully compared. Sympathy has to do with caring about others and wishing them well. Sympathy is meaningful, of course—but it doesn’t require a lot of energy or intentionality.
Empathy is something more difficult. It involves trying to imagine what someone else is experiencing: allowing yourself to feel (albeit second-hand) some of what they are feeling.
Empathy is a talent. As human beings, we’re able to empathise with our friends and family, but also with someone we only learned about a few moments ago on the television. If an alien were to analyse our daily lives, they’d probably remark on our near-magical ability to connect to one another through our imaginations.
How can we become more empathetic?
Firstly, we have to admit that empathy difficult. Most of us find it scary, for a number of reasons…
- We might be angry at, frustrated with, or simply dislike the people with whom we are trying to empathise.
- We might worry that if we empathise too deeply we’ll have to change our views and lose power as a result.
- We might be concerned that we simply don’t know enough about the other person to make a good guess of how they feel.
These difficulties should help us to recognise that we can’t always be perfect at empathy.
However, if we are generous enough to spend time thinking about people we find difficult, brave about trying new ideas, and cautious about making assumptions, we can learn a lot. Here are a few ways to practice empathy at work:
Be more curious
When there are so many pressures, we often feel like we simply don’t have time to think about others. How often have you mentally filled in the end of someone’s sentence, rather than waiting to hear what they say? How often have you said of a difficult colleague, “that’s just how she is”? This kind of attitude is understandable in a busy and stressful environment, but in the long term, it can weaken our relationships and lead us to make faulty assumptions about our colleagues and clients. To combat this, we need to pay closer attention to the inner world of others, and be more open to learning something new about them.
Action: Each day spend a few minutes thinking through the inner world of someone you work with. Challenge yourself to find something new or unexpected.
Focus on detail
Being properly curious also means being thorough.
Action: To really get into what someone else is thinking, ask yourself a lot of questions about them e.g.:
- What motivates them?
- What frustrates them?
- What do they value
What might they be worried about today?
Try an empathy experiment
If you’re not sure what someone else is feeling or thinking, you might want to take a more radical approach and literally put yourself in their position. Here’s a real example of an empathy experiment in action:
In the mid-1970s Patricia Moore, then 26, was working as an industrial designer at the top New York firm Raymond Loewy. She wanted to create a refrigerator door for someone with arthritic hands, so she decided to conduct an empathy experiment and discover the realities of life as an eighty-year-old woman. She put on make-up so she looked old and wrinkly, wore glasses that blurred her vision, clipped on a brace and wrapped bandages around her torso so she was hunched over, plugged up her ears so she couldn’t hear well, and put on awkward, uneven shoes so she was forced to walk with a stick. For three years she navigated different American cities in her new persona. Based on her experiences and insights, she was able to design a whole series of innovative products that were suitable for use by elderly people. She is credited as one of the founders of Universal Design, an approach in which products are designed non-exclusively, for use by the widest range of consumers possible, including the disabled and elderly, which has now become standard in the industry.
Empathy experiments are useful for understanding both customers and colleagues. For example we could spend time trying to buy products as if we were the consumer, or trying our hand at some of the gruntwork on a project to better understand how it feels to be a more junior member of the team.
Empathy works like a muscle; it’s something we learn to use and strengthen over time. The more we practice thinking through what others are thinking, the more frequent and intuitive it will become.
We can all become more empathetic. It isn’t as easy as it sounds. But it is one of the most valuable skills we can develop in work, and in life.