This week I want to talk about why empathy is the key to great relationship management. Companies who are preparing for the future of work know that the right thing to do today is to invest in helping their people at all ages and stages become more adaptable, exercise better judgement, understand opposing behaviour preferences and tackle the root causes of communication conflict.

Why? Because the influence and management of others is an incredibly important skill. It only becomes more essential as AI, machine learning, and augmented intelligence play a larger part in our working lives. New recruits to an organisation often have zero training in this area, yet it’s what makes a great business stay truly great and it’s what separates good leaders from outstanding ones.

The importance of empathy

Back in November I shared my thoughts on handling ‘opposite colleagues’. After taking you through my Team DNA Wheel, I said that identifying a team’s shared purpose and shared values goes a long way to reducing disharmony or a sense that the team is somehow ‘not working’. But before team leaders can even do this, they need to have spent time identifying each team member’s communication style and unique stress triggers. In other words, they’d need to have ideally have developed a high degree of empathy and encouraged both self-awareness and empathy in others.

Even the most enlightened self-improvers in self-awareness and self-management are unlikely to have great relationships with others if they lack empathy. Without empathy, we’re emotionally tone deaf. It’s not just about being kind and caring, it’s the cornerstone of great human relationships. It can be extremely hard to empathise with people whose views you disagree with, but it’s possible.

I think the key thing about empathy in business is that truly tuning into others helps you build rapport. It helps you fully understand another’s position and gives you the context and knowledge to persuade and influence in an appropriate (and usually more successful) manner.

Why should you care about being emphatic?

Empathy is about discovering different people’s tastes and respecting them. Some of us care more than others about how much we’re liked. The saying goes that it’s more important (in business at least) to be respected by your colleagues than liked. It’s respect that will influence productivity and team outcomes.

Why do people behave the way they do?

Of course, it helps to like each other a bit. But even if we’re never likely to be best pals, it’s a good move to try and understand why certain colleagues tend to pull in the opposite direction or find issue with your way of thinking. You might never quite agree on how to solve task-related problems or handle sensitive colleagues. But if you understood more about why they behave the way they do, the day might be less fractious and who knows, a new-found appreciation of where your colleague is coming from might just mean you like them a bit more!

Letting people have a voice

Think of the people in your team who cause you the most frustration. Hand on heart, have you ever tuned right in to their workplace and external pressures? Or their very different career-development agendas and their own unique frustrations? Have you stopped to ask them what they think about the current team dynamic?

If you’re a team leader or work in HR, you’ll know that letting people have a voice is a key builder of trust. It’s important to understand motivation and engagement levels. Also, to explore people’s personal goals and check on their sense of direction organisational awareness and commitment to the team goals. Sounds a bit obvious, but the pressures of business mean we very often neglect what are essentially basics in managing employee motivation. I’ve seen it many times in my work with corporate teams. People see their own packed agendas as the priority. In their bid to be efficient according to their way, they forget that not everyone wears the same lens.

Could you be a more empathetic leader?

Empathetic leaders:

  • Can comprehend an individual or group’s unspoken emotions.
  • Listen well and easily grasp other’s perspectives.
  • Explain their ideas in ways other people understand and work well with people from diverse cultures and backgrounds.
  • Build an atmosphere of cooperation, helpfulness, and respect.
  • Help others commit to the group’s effort.
  • Help a team develop an identity, positive relationships, and spirit.
    It’s definitely not easy, but it’s possible!
  • When it comes to that bane of everyday business life, conflict management, they recognise and respect different perspectives.
  • They focus on helping everyone find the common ground upon which they can agree, allowing everyone’s opinion and direct efforts contribute to finding an agreeable resolution.

Empathy by Roman Kznaric

In his 2014 book, Empathy, Roman Kznaric presents the life-enhancing habits of highly empathic people. He claims that relationships fall apart because at least one person feels that their needs and feelings are not being listened to and understood. He reminds us that the key ingredient in human progress is to see the world from someone else's perspective.

I love his claim that 98% of people have the ability to empathise, yet few of us use our full empathic potential. We need to balance introspection with what Kznaric calls ‘outrospection’. We need not only to know ourselves, of course. But we also need to understand the lives of other people.

Uncover Common Ground

Most of us spend our time trying to communicate our thinking and seek consensus for decision-making. Unfortunately, the last thing we think of is doing the opposite. Being open to understand someone else’s thinking and surveying their point of view! This naturally leads to uncovering unexpected ‘common ground’. On this common ground, new conversations and better outcomes can spring. And that, in my book, is a healthy way to approach teamwork!

What do you think? Please leave your questions and comments 🙂

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