It’s not uncommon to feel as though you’re swimming upstream up work, especially when it comes to working in tandem with colleagues. You ask yourself: why don’t they see what I’m trying to achieve? Why is [insert selected colleague’s name here] wasting time with that aspect of the project?
Developing your empathy skills – and introducing a more empathic culture to your workplace in general – has the capacity to transform your company and the experience of employees within it, argues writer and The School of Life founding faculty member Roman Krznaric.
“Without empathy, we’re emotionally tone-deaf so it’s obvious to me that this is a key business skill,” Roman explains.
The ability to understand a point of view different from our own is at the root of emotional intelligence, healthy communication, creativity and innovative thinking. In short, the key to eliminating many barriers we experience in both our personal and professional lives. As such, Roman thinks the skill is as important as any other when hiring new staff members.
The ability to understand a point of view different from our own is at the root of emotional intelligence, healthy communication, creativity and innovative thinking.
“Empathy tests should be part of recruitment processes,” Roman insists, “As well as doing Myers-Briggs tests and things like that. There are huge opportunities for empathic culture building.”
While there is a general trend to more permissive, empathic workplaces – companies that offer part-time opportunities to new, working mothers or workplaces that give working from home as an option to staff, for example – there are still many companies that are stuck in the dark ages. Hiring people who have this fundamental skill (and introducing workshops and exercises to build on it once they’ve been hired) are serious steps towards transforming the workplace.
Although he argues it’s also what makes a good creative, innovative thinker (how else do you come up with a product without considering what’s missing from your customer/client’s life?) a fundamental use of your empathic listening will tell you not only what your customers and clients need, but also your employees.
How else do you come up with a product without considering what’s missing from your customer/client’s life?
Part of developing your empathic skills is the experiential aspect of actually putting yourself in the position of someone else – something that’s becoming increasingly difficult as our time in the digital realm increases.
“You would hope that in world of 2.7 billion people online, that there would be a great empathic revolution – I can talk, in theory, to factory worker in Shanghai or a farmer in drought-struck Kenya but that isn’t what happens, right?” he says of our social networking obsessions. “[We] connect with people that are like us, not different from us.”
Which leaves very little room for us to practice our empathy skills with those we may initially struggle to understand.
In response, Roman is introducing a number of fascinating, interactive initiatives internationally to promote the importance of empathy. Along with the London-based Empathy Museum, he’s also recently instated an exhibition in Perth, A Mile in My Shoes, allowing participants to wear the actual shoes of a stranger, while listening to their unique story through headphones, facilitating a more empathic view of strangers and their experiences.
Participants to wear the actual shoes of a stranger, while listening to their unique story through headphones, facilitating a more empathic view of strangers and their experiences.
“The physical act of popping on the shoes of a stranger whether it’s a sex worker or a refugee and then listening to their story in your headphones and working in their shoes, it’s a very intimate thing. It’s much more intimate than a 140 character tweet,” Roman points out. “Now, you’re not meeting that person in the flesh which could be even better, which is partly why we’ve done these human library events in Perth as well, where you borrow a person instead of a book where you can talk to a Sudanese refugee or a philosopher. It’s all trying to make empathy learning experiential, that’s really the stuff that ultimately can change us.”
Considering many of us communicate through digital means, whether it’s a passive aggressive email or a dismissive text, connecting with a person face-to-face can have a huge impact on how we understand the point of view of a colleague.
Next time you’re having difficulty with a colleague, practice your empathic listening skills by taking your concerns directly to them, in person, instead of firing off an email and making sure to consider the concept: what are they really feeling? What do they actually need?
You’ll find that exchanges – both at home and in the workplace – become a lot easier if you practice this way of thinking, and encourage others to do the same.