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Emma Sue Prince



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Empathy? Not touchy-feely but a must-have skill


It's proven to be essential for enhancing our interpersonal relationships, overall life satisfaction and improving our ability to cope. This source suggests it is the most powerful leadership tool to have! So why aren't we training people at all levels more explicitly in empathy skills?

Part of this might be that empathy is difficult to define, and perhaps even more difficult to "teach". Empathy - often confused with sympathy and often misunderstood as being a key competence we need to and can develop.

The fact is that we do not think, see or perceive the world as other people do  but we do spend a lot of our time operating within our own way of thinking, seeing or perceiving the world and expecting everyone else to be operating from the same paradigm. This is a waste of time since they don't and they can't.

Empathy is the ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way- to sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions. Perhaps on first glance all this sounds a bit wooly. Is it really possible to develop empathy? Some people are naturally good at it. Neuroscience suggests that empathy is connected with how our brains work. So some people may naturally be better at it than others. But it can be learned.

Empathy is also referred to as social intelligence.
Socially intelligent people are able to quickly assess the emotions of those around them and adapt their words, tone and gestures accordingly. This has always been a key skill for managers and leaders who need to collaborate and build relationships of trust, but now it is even more important for all of us, as we are called upon to collaborate with larger groups of people in different settings, virtual and non-virtual. Our Social IQ will continue to be a vital asset. Social IQ is built into the human psyche to greater or lesser degrees and is something which can be developed.

So, how do we do that? According to Daniel Pink's book  “A Whole New Mind", we need to start by being better at reading people’s faces and body language - people we interact with anyway so that means paying far more attention, than we do. Paul Ekman in "Emotions Revealed" says that facial expressions are on the face for a few seconds, long enough to recognise easily if you are paying attention and not distracted by your own thoughts. He says what you need to understand are the micro expressions and then offers training on this - there's a trial test you can take to see how good you are at it here, I have to say I scored 0 and I thought I was quite good at reading people!

Another way is to try and totally and completely immerse ourselves in what it might feel like, look like, taste like to walk in another person's shoes and only then can we really experience empathy. Try this empathy test next time you are dealing with a frustrating situation! It is hard to do because it means consciously directing our awareness to something our mind does not naturally gravitate towards. That's because our sense of individuality and ego is so very strong and ingrained.
Apart from learning how to read faces, there are some key elements of empathy that we should be focusing on. These are self-awareness, non-judgement, active listening skills and self-confidence. These are the subsets of skills we can develop in training to help build empathy. Ways of doing this? One fantastic technique is forum theatre. This is a  hugely successful tool to help understand others' perspectives through empathy - a low-risk, high-gain opportunity to walk around others' shoes and explore language and behaviour. Forum theatre is a stress-less investment for learners as they don't have to actually get up and role play but they still have a huge level of involvement; or it might allow them to challenge someone's behaviour on another's behalf. Scenes are based on real issues that have been given a dramatic context to bring out discussion.

Interested to know what other techniques might work well and what other trainers think.

3 Responses

  1. Making it real

    The first question that suggests itself here is: "What is meant by empathy?"

    And the second is: "Is empathy necessarily the best kind of relationship to have in a business context?  For example, what about ‘rapport’?"

    Now different people are likely to have different definitions of "empathy" and "rapport", so here are the meanings I’m thinking of, and why I raise these questions:

    1.  Empathy – involves some degree of emotional component leading to some kind of "fellow feeling" – actual experience of the feelings of the person one is empathizing with.  As a personal opinion, it seems to me that this is a greater/deeper degree of involvement than is likely to be useful in *most* business situations, though I can think of a *few* exceptions.

    2.  Rapport – is more simple in that it involves less emotion and more reasoning.  It is intended to create a working basis for effective communication rather than "fellow feeling" as such.

    FWIW, I suspect that one common reason why this area gets overlooked, at least in UK businesses, is because we more often talk about "empathy" than we do about "rapport", and as Emma rightly picked up on, we tend to be wary of anything that smacks of emotions, especially in a context such as the work place.

    (Having said that, I also agree with Emma that empathy – as in my definition above – is indeed an important quality in any successful manager/leader.)

    At this point I have to say that this post mentions NLP, so before going on, in order to avoid any unhelpful  arguments, I’d like to quote a definition as it appears on a US government mental health related website:

    "Neuro-Linguistic Programming:

    DEFINITION: A set of models of how communication impacts and is impacted by subjective experience. Techniques are generated from these models by sequencing of various aspects of the models in order to change someone’s internal representations. Neurolinguistic programming is concerned with the patterns or programming created by the interactions among the brain, language, and the body, that produce both effective and ineffective behavior."

    Despite being from an organisation with no links to any part of the NLP-related community, this definition is totally in agreement with the definitions I have received from co-creators Frank Pucilik and John Grinder, in person, and from Richard Bandler in a BBC Radio4 interview in November, 2010.

    OK, onwards and upwards.

    One of the problems with most articles and books about empathy is that they are either rather vague, or highly demanding in the techniques they suggest.  The advantage of NLP-related techniques for creating rapport is that they are short and simple and don’t require a person to be tracking half a dozen kinds of signals at the same time as they are trying to understand what the other person is saying.

    Here’s a fairly basic example:

    Tracking and Matching

    In brief: Listen to the other person and notice what "sensory predicates" they use.  When it’s your turn to speak, reflect back the other person’s predicate usage.

    (i)  This is easy because it doesn’t require us to do anything we wouldn’t be doing anyway – listening to the other person. 

    (ii) The only difference is that we can track what senses the other person is paying special attention to all the time they are speaking.  And on that basis we can create rapport by appearing to follow a very similar line of thought.

    (iii)  So, if the other person says something like, "I’ve heard everything you’ve been saying, and I think I see what you’re getting at.  But somehow or other it just doesn’t feel quite right."

    (Note:  The "sensory predicates" are the words I’ve highlighted.  They imply or directly state the use of a particulatr sense – sight, hearing, feeling (physical or emotional), smell or taste.)

    In this example I’ve gone a step further than most books on NLP-related techniques.  Because that is the kind of thing that really happens in day-to-day communications.  We don’t just latch on to one sense and use it all the time.  This is important to bear in mind because when we realise how people are switching their focus between the senses we begin to realise how important it is for us to stay focused on what the other person is saying.

    This in turn usually shows in our behaviour and increases rapport by impressing the other person that we really are listening to what they are saying rather than immediately starting to develop an answer, long before we’ve heard all that they have to say.

    So, we can map the sensory focus of the speaker as being: Hearing, Hearing, Seeing, Feeling, Feeling.  Or in NLP shorthand:

     A (auditory) -> A -> V (visual) -> K (kinaesthetic/feeling) -> K

    And A – A – V – K – K is pretty easy to remember even after just a little practice.

    So, when you answer that comment you simply repeat the sequence, though not necessarily exactly the same words (unless you want to sound like a parrot).  In this case something like:

    "OK, correct me if I’m wrong – I understand you to be saying that whilst you understood what I said, and on one level my meaning was fairly plain, there’s possibly something – which you can’t quite put your finger on – which needs further examination."

    Which works very well as a means of creating and maintaining rapport – when used appropriately and skilfully.

    Andy B.

    Honest Abe’s NLP Emporium


  2. Empathy? Not touchy-feely but a must-have skill

    Thank you both for very insightful comments. V interesting to read about NLP examples and talking about building "rapport" rather than "empathy". I think quite often NLP gets a bit of a bad rap but of course, when it comes to reading faces or signals, it plays a valuable part. I think training business people in Riga to be mindful and slow down is a hugely important part of supporting the developent of empathy skills.

    Another aspect I started thinking about after I wrote the blog was that in future we are going to have to carry over soft skills to social media and virtual worlds, if we are not doing so already… Can empathy be expressed through social media and virtually, I wonder?

  3. Building empathy skills – some free training materials

    I’d like to add some free training materials for helping with developing empathy.
    These are customisable visuals, trainer notes and interactive exercises in connection with building empathy skills, connected to my recent blog on this topic.

    The link to the materials is here: Free membership, then download

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Emma Sue Prince


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