Terrific article in the BBC Magazine on empathy by Roman Krznaric: http://bbc.in/1LDWUuO from his book Empathy: A Handbook for
We make a big feature about empathy on quite a few of our courses, from Communication Skills to Customer Service, Conflict Management, Coaching and Mentoring, Leadership, Influencing, Building Business Relationships.
We think it is an essential building block and think that Mr Krznaric hits the nail on the head when he says that empathy can be 'learned'. He says that we are hard-wired to be empathetic but can let that part of us diminish and he has some excellent suggestions to develop a more empathetic approach to others.
We know form our years of working with people that if you can use empathy as a conscious communication tool you will become more engaged with other people which in turn means stronger communication ties, the ability to sort out difficulties, richer relationships, less divisiveness and our favourite, more fun.
There are many triggers for conflict and a lot of them have to do with entrenched beliefs, inflexibility, righteousness, etc. All those contribute to your staying stuck in your absolute conviction that you are right and the other person is wrong.
Empathy means the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view, even if you don't agree with it in any way. And that is really hard to do when you have a strong belief about something.
There seems to be a fear that if you admit you can see something from the other person's point of view then that's tantamount to conceding that they are right and you are wrong. It isn't, but all the while it feels as though that's what's going on, then it feels justified to stay right where you are looking at the world through your eyes with no attempt to see it differently.
There's a good New Yorker cartoon that shows two women talking and one is saying to the other, "I'm trying to see it from my point of view." A bit close to the bone that one!
That's because it takes even more than empathy to see something, however briefly, from the other person's take on life. It requires you to set aside one or more of your strong beliefs and alter your world view for the briefest amount of time.
We have an exercise we often run on our tailored Influencing courses. We start with the premise that most people who have a strong viewpoint try to convince the 'other side' to think like them. They believe that if they have cogent enough arguments then that will persuade those they have to influence.
Doesn't always work like that; so we turn things on their head with a real simple exercise.
We ask delegates to work in small groups and identify an issue within their company about which they all have the same point of view. They list all the things that support that POV on flip charts.
Then we ask them to put themselves in the 'opposition' camp and list things that support the opposing POV.
For some people this is nigh on impossible.What they do is write what they want the other side to think rather than literally imagining themselves as the other people.
They find it really frustrating and often get angry that they might have to shift their thinking in order to get someone else to shift theirs.
That, of course, is the key to empathetic behaviour. You do need to shift your view first if you want to make any headway in connecting with someone who disagrees with you or who has no vested interest in supporting your point of view.
Shifting yours does not mean 'giving in'; it does not mean conceding; it certainly doesn't mean you have to give your view up for life and adopt another one. What it does mean is that in order to engage with other people you have to accept that your view is not the only one.
As a matter of fact, this is closely linked to an earlier blog on Customer Service I wrote about finding common ground. That's another thing that you can practise to develop empathy. The more common ground you can find, the more you build up your relationships. When those relationships are built on similarities, the easier it is to work out the differences.
Unless you truly are a misanthrope and eschew heartfelt commune with others, then growing your ability to empathise will make a significant difference in how you connect with others around you.
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By Jo Ellen Grzyb, Director, Impact Factory