2 min read

Learning to be empathetic

Learning to be empathetic

Some of you may know me, and others may get to know me. It would be fair to say that empathy is not my natural strength. We use Clifton Strengths Finder at Boost to help us work better together and create as many opportunities for team members to work in their strengths. When I got my results, empathy was 31 out of 34. Not a strong showing. So when I am talking about empathy, it’s from the position of someone for whom it does not naturally arise. I have had to work at it.

The empathy is not strong with this one.

Luckily for both of us, empathy is coachable. Neuropsychological studies suggest that, with adequate coaching, people can become more prosocial, altruistic, and compassionate and that such changes will be visible in brain imaging studies. And with the business benefits that come with that empathy, you’d probably agree that it’s something worth working on! I’ve learned to be more empathic and embrace my feelings; I’m not an outlier here.

We can work on it. How do we get there?

As I’ve mentioned, I don’t have strong empathy. Instead, I have replaced this with a more analytical approach. Rather than relying on being able to feel how others are feeling, I will work through an exercise either by myself or with the team.

We put the person or team at the center of a whiteboard and ask ourselves questions like, What behaviors are we seeing? and What are we hearing and noticing? This is a non-judgmental exercise; you’re just collecting data at this point.

Once we have these articulated and visible, we view them from different perspectives, asking, Why would a person act this way or use these words? How are they seeing the world?

This simple exercise has worked time and again for my team and me. It’s helped us escape the stories we have been telling ourselves and give us helpful insight into how others see the world.

I get it. This approach is beyond obvious. But you should try it. The real gold here is stopping and taking the time to work on this with your team and act on the new perspectives. Imagine a team member who appears disengaged and combative. When we work through this process, we may discover that they feel overwhelmed by the changes they are being asked to make in their work. Now that you understand where their frustration is coming from, you can make changes that benefit them. That combativeness melts away, and they’re being engaged in a way that helps them. That’s empathy in action – and it only took a few minutes to work on.

This tool usually only takes 15 minutes or so to run through, but it’s more powerful than you can imagine. All you need is to take the time to determine how a team member feels and see what you can do better together. We have seen projects that were way off track turn around and became high-performing beacons of hope for other teams within weeks.

Another way to get more empathy in your teams is to hire it. Be on the lookout for team members who might be strongly empathetic; bring them into your team and ensure their voices are heard. When creating a team, you’ll want to build a portfolio of skills and abilities – and empathy and other “soft” skills are just as crucial to the strength of your operations as any technical ability.