Empathy and relationship building

By Gale Mote / Guest Editorial

Empathy is a core skill for building sound relationships, both personally and professionally. It is a person’s ability to truly see and understand what, how and why people feel and think the way they do. The right words at the right time can shift an adversarial confrontation into a collaborative dialogue. This is because the other person feels heard, considered and understood – you are on the same side.

Unfortunately, this skill is terribly underutilized. This is because when we need it the most, we tend to use it the least. Rather than respond with empathy, in highly emotional situations we tend to push our own perspectives or react defensively.

The good news is that empathy is a behavioral skill we can all improve upon. While some people have a natural talent for reading the mood in the room or sensing how another person feels, with dedicated practice everyone can learn to walk a mile in another’s shoes.

First, empathic listeners are attentive and focused – that means no smartphones, no distractions. Fifty-five percent of face-to-face communication is body language. Watch for non-verbal cues with facial expressions, posture and gestures. Thirty-eight percent of the message is in the voice – its rate, volume and tone. The old adage, “it’s not what you said, it’s how you said it” rings true here. Many times how a person is truly feeling will be displayed non-verbally, even if the words are not in alignment.

Next, demonstrating empathy requires you to put your own feelings on hold. Understanding someone’s perspective does not require you to feel the same way or even agree with his or her position. Sympathy means you take on the same feelings and respond with your own perspective: “I know just how you feel. I’ve been down that road too. I feel so sorry for you.” Rather than reacting to what someone says, slow down, breathe and think. If what he said triggered an emotional response in you, be careful not to make your emotions the focus of the conversation. Be self-aware and manage your impulses so you act rationally.

Lastly, focus on the other person’s perspective – what must they be feeling right now? What thoughts are possibly going through their head? The ability to put into words your understanding of someone else’s world is more of an art than a science. Psychotherapist Alfred Adler described it as “seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” Simply put, empathic listening is the art of hearing with your heart. That said, if you truly don’t care about the other person, good luck. It will be impossible to be sincere and authentic in your communication.

A key tip here is to respond by starting with the word “you” to show you are speaking from their perspective and trying to understand their point of view. “You must be…” “You seem to be…” “It sounds like you…” It is also important to follow up with probing, open-ended questions to learn more about the person’s real truth.

Allison has been working in a call center for approximately one month. Her coach is listening to her work through a refund with a disappointed customer. After the call, Allison turns to her coach and says, “This is the worst job ever. I’m never going to get this – the quantity of calls, the length of calls, being nice even when the customers are rude. You make it look so easy.”

Decide which of the following of the coach’s responses are empathic and which are not:

a)     “I have my days too. Believe me, it isn’t easy.”

b)    “You feel like taking calls is a no-win situation and you are helpless to meet expectations.  While it is difficult, it does get better with time and practice.”

c)     “You have only been taking calls for one month. It will get better.”

d)    “Sorry – we want quality and quantity. That’s just the reality of the situation.”

e)      “You are unhappy in your role. It seems impossible to meet what feels like conflicting objectives. Then, you have to work to satisfy customers who are not at their best. It is not easy, Allison, but it does get better.”

So which options did you choose? The key is to think about how Allison might feel after each response.  Did she feel heard, considered and truly understood? Is her relationship with her coach one of alliance or contention? Was she feeling reassured or dismissed?

The empathic answers are b and e. The first answer demonstrates sympathy because the speaker is making it about herself. Answer c has the undertone of empathy, in that it is reassuring, however it does not capture Allison’s real feelings. Answer d is a reality-oriented perspective, but not empathic.

Remember, when you make an empathic statement, even in the midst of tension and disagreement, you shift the balance from a contentious encounter to a collaborative conversation.

The power of empathy is that if you can grasp what another person is thinking and feeling, even if you do not agree, and you can put that understanding into the right words at the right time, the other person will feel validated. From there, you have the base to engage in effective problem-solving and build strong interpersonal relationships.

Gale Mote is a trainer, organizational development catalyst and coach in Cedar Rapids. Contact her at galemote@galemoteassociates.com.