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The business of empathy

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

Empathy is feeling that you understand and perhaps even share another person’s experiences or emotions. It’s your capacity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Empathy stems from understanding the emotional rationale as much as the logical rationale driving other people’s decisions.

Increasingly, business leaders are thinking about how to cultivate the skills (both “soft” and “hard”) that people need in order to be successful in the world. In a Harvard Business Review article, Belinda Parmar, founder and CEO of the Empathy Business, wrote: “I believe that empathy should be embedded into the entire organisation.”

She also argued that there’s nothing “soft” about empathy: “It’s a hard skill that should be required from the boardroom to the shop floor.”

Parmar’s argument, I believe, stands in stark contrast to more traditional tenets of business and life success.

We’ve likely all learnt at some point about the need to take a cut-throat approach to competition and the need to climb over others on our way to the top. To the contrary, Parmar makes the case that every single one of us needs support to achieve the results that might drive us forward. We can’t go it alone.

In my view, there’s a link between empathy and a biological concept called coevolution.

Coevolution explains how organisms adapt as they are triggered by changes in the other organisms and in their environments. From a biological standpoint, that means living things have a reciprocal effect on each other’s evolution. They influence, shape, and reshape one another.

Recognising this exchange of energy — our shared capacity to affect one another — helps to explain what it means to live empathetically.

Some of the most truly empathic people are those who are able not only to take account of the changes around them but also to adapt themselves to those changes so as to strengthen their interactions with others.

Business executive and philanthropist Bobby Sager decided to spend his life travelling around the globe, giving his money away and using street smarts and an entrepreneurial attitude to make a difference in some of the most devastated places on the planet. Bobby established the Sager Family Traveling Foundation, which has allowed him and his family to spend their lives in the most difficult places in the world.

For Bobby, the most transcendent moments arrive when least expected. “They’ve risen out of the joy and frustration of sharing in ordinary people’s everyday lives.”

I was able to sit down with Bobby for an interview to dive into developing understanding for others.

SL: Spending so much time in war zones must have taught you some incredible lessons on how to truly communicate with another human. Can you share some of these please?

BS: You have to get up close and personal. The closer you get, the more you can find the light. When it comes to understanding someone, when it comes to figuring something out, everything comes down to being a great listener. And the only way that you can be a great listener is if you’re really present and you are rid of your disruptive emotions.

SL: What is one thing that you would encourage anyone to do that would give them a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives?

BS: There isn’t any question that if you don’t have gratitude in the day, you’re not going to have a full day. Gratitude is basically not taking things in your everyday life for granted. It needs to be a daily practice and a very conscious effort.

Empathy isn’t just good for understanding a business’s customers; it’s become a critical component of good leadership within a company and of the way leaders educate and develop their teams.

Belinda Parmar and others have shown us that empathy can be fostered in ways that improve business environments. When businesses bring empathy to the fore, they help to increase the happiness, engagement and productivity of their workforces.

For those interested in cultivating empathy, evidence shows that active listening and role-playing are some of the best techniques for helping people put themselves in others’ shoes.

• Active Listening — To help ourselves to listen actively, we need to focus in on our conversation partner’s physicality, their body language or positioning, their facial expressions and the subtext of what is and is not being said. Other active listening techniques involve repeating what we’ve heard beginning with phrases like “Let me see if I’ve heard you right” to check that what we believe we’ve heard or understood matches the speaker’s intent. The more present we can be, the more we improve both our own and others’ experience of the conversation.

• Role-Playing — Switching roles can allow for new and unexpected dialogue among colleagues and, when enacted in front of groups, can also help those who witness the role-play identify direct and indirect cues that reveal the attitudes and feelings of the players.

Thoughtful and keenly attuned leadership can go a long way towards creating an environment in which people are looking out for, rather than competing against, one another.

Empathy has humility at its heart because it teaches us to get out of our own shoes and imagine what it might be like in someone else’s. Empathy begins from vulnerability, from opening ourselves up to others.

To quote Leonard Cohen, “Our cracks let the light in.”

• This excerpt was taken from Stuart Lacey’s book, The Formula For Luck: Leave Nothing To Chance and a foundational part of the work done at the Bermuda Clarity Institute. If you would like to learn more about the organisational research, including the importance of Failing Forward, that we do at the Bermuda Clarity Institute, visit https://bermudaclarityinstitute.com

Stuart Lacey: for those interested in cultivating empathy, evidence shows that active listening and role-playing are some of the best techniques for helping people put themselves in others’ shoes (Photograph supplied)

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Published June 07, 2022 at 7:55 am (Updated June 07, 2022 at 7:48 am)

The business of empathy

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