Empathy. What is that? What do I need it for? Do I have to be born with it or can I learn it? These questions, among others, will be dealt with in the following article. But before we start, let me give you a little example.
Company XYZ: “Company XYZ, how can I help you?”
Customer: “That piece of crap doesn’t work!”
Company XYZ: “What piece of crap?”
Customer: “The radio that was delivered yesterday.”
Company XYZ: “Aha. So… what do you want me to do now?”
Customer: “Well, take it back and refund it, as a start?”
Company XYZ: “Nah, we don’t do that.”
Customer: “But it has been delivered one day ago. You HAVE to take it back!”
Company XYZ: “See, we don’t have to do anything. Especially not if you have broken the radio. We only deliver flawless goods.”
Customer: “Are you kidding me? I unpacked it, tried to turn it on and it didn’t work. It has been broken from the start.”
Company XYZ: “I see. So you’re one of those folks that don’t read the manual. What about plugging the radio in first?”
Customer: “OF COURSE it has been plugged in! You can’t be serious. I want to talk to your boss right now.”
Company XYZ: “Sure. Many people want that. He’s not in the office. Good luck with sending an email. As far as I’m concerned, I cannot help you right now. Have a nice day.” *hangs up*
I hope you have never been part of a conversation like that. If you have, make sure to show your dialogue partner this article — if they are still working at that company. Empathy is one of the most important skills when it comes to customer support and the example that I have just given shows what a complete lack of empathy looks like. Let‘s check what empathy means and how you can avoid a conversation like the one from my example.
What is empathy?
Empathy describes the ability to perceive what’s going on inside somebody else. You feel empathy for the other person’s thoughts, emotions, motives and personal attributes. In other words: You engage with somebody. This includes perception, comprehension and being able to relate to the other party’s actions, statements and attitude. But empathy isn’t just about taking in. It is also about reacting in a suitable way.
There are four different types of empathy:
- Affective or emotional empathy: You have the same feelings as your counterpart. This type is also called compassion or commiseration. Because that‘s what is happening: you feel miserable, even if the other person’s problem isn’t directly affecting you. Imagine a friend telling you that their parents just died in a horrible accident. Neither your own parents nor yourself are affected by that accident. Still, you may have a strong feeling of loss and misery — commiseration.
- Cognitive or mental empathy: you perceive feelings, emotions, and attributes of your counterpart. But in contrast to affective empathy, you don’t have those feelings yourself. You keep a certain distance and although you understand what’s happening inside that other mind, you don’t feel what they feel Here’s an example: You see a random person, sitting in a cafe. He is bent over, lets his head hang and stares into his pot of coffee with drooping corners of his mouth. Now and then, he sighs deeply. Without talking to him, you understand that he’s obviously not happy, just by interpreting his body language and actions.
- Social Empathy: in this field, we’re moving away from single people and towards groups. Social systems, i.e. groups of people, have their own attributes and values. Those don’t necessarily have to be the same of the individual member of the group. Think of a group of screaming teenagers in front of the concert hall where they are about to see their idol. You usually don’t see the member of that group walking down the road, screaming like mad. Nevertheless, once they gather in a group and all have the same goal of seeing their icon, they act differently. Understanding this group behavior is described in the concept of social empathy.
Overall, empathy means to understand that there’s more than your own reality and perception. One requirement for observing the reality of your environment is to recognize yourself. Your senses – sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound — help you with that. They tell you where you end and your environment starts and draw a clear line between. Usually, you’re pretty good at telling where “you” begin and “the outside” ends. You also have some understanding of how your body works and what it wants to tell you when you can’t keep your eyes open late at night. Most people have an image of themselves inside their head that includes their appearance as well as their feelings. This image helps us to put ourselves in context with our environment. For example, if you‘re in a conversation with another person, you usually know pretty well if it‘s you who’s currently talking or if it‘s your counterpart. This works although your ears do the very same thing in both cases: they just detect sound.
Another aspect of empathy is that it not only enables you to interpret current events, but you can even tell the future, to some extent. By analyzing the body language, way of speaking and actions of a person, you can make predictions about their goals and motives. At the same time, you can adjust your own reactions accordingly. Fancy an example? Think of your local supermarket. You need some information. You will probably walk up to one of the shop assistants and at some point stand in front of them. An attentive employee will make eye-contact even before you reach them. Another one, being just about to start their lunch break, may take their heels as soon as possible. Both “read” your actions and body language, come to their conclusion about your aims and react to it.
What is in it for me?
Empathy is beneficial in different situations.
- Empathy improves your communication. If you understand your conversational partner and whatever they are thinking, feeling or saying, you can respond in a suitable way. You bring both parties on the same level and may even be able to predict the goal of the conversation. Thus, you can either work towards that goal yourself or you can turn the discussion in another direction. You also detect impending friction quicker than if you only stubbornly listened to the spoken word. You find the right words, talk on a level playing field and “come for them”.
- Empathy supports customer-focused work. If your goal is to have a customer-oriented company, this won‘t happen if you don’t understand your customers. You need to be able to interpret their motives, emotions, and thoughts because a good amount of information is only transmitted between the lines. Especially in that field, you can earn a lot of bonus points by making your customers feel human instead of being a random number or a set of anonymous classification figures.
- Interdisciplinary teams benefit from empathy. If different departments come together in one team, they often bring their own set of rules, technical terms, opinions, and approaches. When the team members can understand the other individuals on their team and can interpret their behavior and statements, collaboration is considerably simplified. Misunderstandings can be solved more quickly or can even be avoided at all and unfamiliar work routines don‘t slow down all of.
- You can set clearer boundaries. Wait, haven‘t we been talking about how one should engage with their environment and feel somebody else’s feelings? On the one hand: Yes. But if you’re clear on when you adopt emotions and motives of your environment as your own, you automatically also create a border to yourself. You don’t encapsulate yourself but rather protect yourself against too much empathy that otherwise could hurt you and wear you down. Empathic people often have a hard time saying “no”, be it in the personal or job-related area. They pity others or are afraid to hurt somebody’s feelings. Thereby, they can harm themselves. If they are aware of that fact, they can purposefully go against it.
Can empathy be learned?
To a certain degree, empathy seems to be innate behavior. Think of it like any other talent: while one person is a natural singer, another one learns one foreign language after the other. Yet another may be born with the ability to put themselves into other people’s feelings.
The good news is: even if you’re no natural, you can learn empathy. As with other skills, it will be easiest if you have been raised in an environment that supports this special ability. An environment that fosters a culture of sympathy and self-reflection. But also as an adult, it’s not too late to give empathy a go.
Be aware that empathy isn’t a one-off effort that you’ll then master for life. Compare it to learning a foreign language. The keys are regular revision and practice. A theory is a foundation, but practice makes the difference. You should concentrate on the following topics.
Take your time.
In the previous paragraph, I have compared learning empathy to learning a language. This doesn’t only go for practicing, but also for the time that you need to invest. You won’t become a master of empathy overnight. You may be able to memorize theoretical basics. But just as you would learn a language, you won’t make it very far without the vocabulary. Take your time to learn the vocabulary of empathy, to practice the different actions that are described in the following paragraphs.
The same also goes for having conversations: Take your time listening. Don’t only give your conversational partner time to talk, but to FINISH talking. Don’t interrupt. It’s simply rude and not empathic at all. Especially if you have conversations in a professional area, don’t put your foot in it.
Empathy doesn’t work by letting the environment wash over you. You need to actively take part in communication by what‘s called active listening. This concept covers different factors:
Put the focus on the conversation.
Concentrate on the discussion. Don’t check your emails or Facebook, don‘t do other work and don‘t get distracted by outside influences. Stay focused on the conversation that you’re having. Once it is finished, you can spend your time on other things.
Let your counterpart finish what they are saying.
This goes without saying. Still, it’s important. Don’t interrupt your conversational partner. You may miss an important or fascinating line of thought that could have been helpful.
Ask for feedback.
One goal of communication should be to check whether you have understood everything correctly. The easiest method? Pose this question. This doesn’t only go for the factual level, but also for emotions and objectives that you feel you have noticed. A simple question like “Am I right with…” or “Is it possible that you are sad/delighted/upset” doesn‘t take much time but can deliver valuable information.
Recap the most important facts.
Paraphrase the comments of your counterpart. Summarize their most important statements. Don‘t wait until the end of the conversation, but dig deeper now and then, once you feel a chain of thought has come to its end. By doing so, you make sure that you understood everything correctly and that you got the core statements.
Don’t stop at level one.
Each statement works in different ways. Friedemann Schulz von Thun, a German psychologist, has invented the Four Sides Model of Communication. In it, he describes that each message has four different levels. The first is the factual information side. It carries the objective information which can be true or false. Second, there’s the appeal side. What do I want to achieve from my counterpart? The relationship side shows what the sender thinks of the receiver of the message. Finally, the self-revelation side gives implicit information about the sender, their intentions, motives and so on. Sounds complicated? Wait until you learn that there are not only four messages that the sender launches. There are also four different ears that the recipient uses to listen to the message. Does he receive the objective facts? Does he feel like he‘s called upon something? Does he perceive the message as a statement about the relationship between him and the sender? Or does it say something about the sender?
It doesn’t come as a huge surprise that sender and recipient aren‘t always on the same side. They talk at cross-purposes. If you want to listen actively, always keep those four sides in mind and check which messages are delivered between the lines. In this case, as well, paraphrasing and checking back can help prevent misunderstandings.
Observe your counterpart.
What’s being said is only a small part of communication. The sender of the message is just as important. Even without talking, we tell a lot about ourselves. You can utilize that fact. Watch out for your counterpart’s body language. What is their posture like? Are they standing tall and gesticulate with large movements or are their shoulders slumped and don’t they lift their head? Do they look you in the eyes while talking or do they avoid eye contact? If you want to learn more about body language, Samy Molcho is a great resource. He’s a pantomime that has been engaged in this topic for decades.
In addition to body language, the voice also tells a lot about the sender. Especially if you‘re communicating by phone, body language doesn’t help. In this case, pay special attention to WHAT the other party says, but also to HOW they say it. Is their voice trembling with fear, does it crack with rage or is it clear and solid because the person is relaxed? Do they sound angry, annoyed or friendly?
Over and above body language and voice, the appearance of a person tells a story. Are they dressed casually or is even the smallest detail in tune? Do they look plain or are they a dazzling personality? But beware: all these signs are only clues. Not everybody that is walking bent over is bowed down with grief. Maybe that person is in pain. We don‘t always laugh just because we’re happy, but also if we are really embarrassed. Somebody dressed in acid colors could be extremely insecure, trying to hide this with a striking facade. Be ready to mess up your opinion about your counterpart at any time once you learn that appearances are deceiving.
Your environment sends direct and indirect signals. You do the same. Your environment, in turn, reacts to your signals, so you’re well advised to get your own impact straight. Think of the doormen at a club. Usually, they don’t talk much but still tell a lot, just through their body language and their appearance. Their behavior commands respect. This makes perfect sense in front of a club. If you’re working as a sales rep or a shop assistant, you may want to choose a different appearance.
Observing yourself also helps with setting clear boundaries. Empathic individuals often have a hard time keeping their environment at bay. They can’t easily say “no” and also try to please everybody. By observing yourself, you also force the perception of yourself. You should check now and then how you feel, how you communicate, what your body language tells your environment. Are you annoyed, do you need a break? Or did you just have a great conversation that brought out the best in you? Make sure to also please yourself!
Empathy and prejudices don’t match. All of us simplify our environment, so we can process it more easily. For that, we press people into schemes, like it or not. This doesn’t even have to mean harm. We may offer a woman a seat because we think she’s pregnant, and we try to be nice. Are you sure of her condition? On the other hand, we often have prejudices against people who won’t fit into our schemes. This could be one of the reasons that you most likely haven’t yet seen a bank accountant who is covered in tattoos. If you have, I suppose it has been in their leisure time because they have to follow the dress code during work.
These schemes ease our environment. But they can also set us on the wrong track. That being said, observe your counterpart in an attentive, but also a neutral way. Always give them a chance to change your opinion about them.
These hints aren’t by far conclusive. They are a good start to become acquainted with empathy and give a first overview. If you want to dig deeper, make sure to also check out personality theories. There are lots of different approaches that provide schemes to divide the surrounding people into groups with matching character traits. Examples are 16 Personalities or The Big Five Personality Traits, just to name a few. Some theories are based on each other or focus on special groups of people. You’re right, we have just discussed not to force people into schemes. But it’s true that many individuals share one or more personality traits. Personality theories try to focus on those matching traits to help you assess your counterpart, at least on a basic level.
In the end, once again: knowing the theories is nice. But you will only really learn about empathy if you practice and practice and practice again.