Empathy: what it is and how to develop it
In the world of business we are increasingly hearing about empathy: communicating empathically, making products and services empathic, being empathic with customers and so on. But what does empathy really mean, and how can we develop it in a professional context?
In this article we will try and find an answer to these questions.
A lot of people confuse empathy with its half-sisters, i.e. simpathy and antipathy.
Although these three terms certainly have a common root in the word pathos (translatable as emotion), in fact they have very different — if not opposite — meanings. Let’s look at them together:
Simpathy (syn-pathos) describes the condition in which we share the same feelings as the people we are engaging with (suffix syn=together).
Antipathy (anti-pathos) on the other hand is when we feel opposite feelings (anti=against).
Empathy (en-pathos) literally means being inside other people’s emotions (en=in or inside) i.e. sensing them and accepting them.
We Italians often use these terms improperly. We use the word antipathy only in a negative sense (to describe a strong feeling of dislike towards someone else), and the word sympathy only in a positive sense (to indicate that someone makes us feel comfortable). However it is important to be aware of the differences in these three terms: bearing in mind their different meanings we will learn to use them properly to clearly identify the most useful attitude.
Why is empathy so important nowadays and why does it have so many supporters among marketing and communication experts?
The superpower of empathy consists in creating connections between people, making them feel welcomed and listened to; it allows especially those who use it to adapt their behaviour to their interlocutors so as to help them and guide them, by satisfying their emotional needs.
Emotions are the foundation of everything: these subtle forces give energy to our actions and provide answers to the psychological needs which are becoming more and more important in modern markets. Without empathy we wouldn’t be able to understand what our customersreally want, since in mature markets the material requirements and the related needs are less and less differentiating in the eyes of the buyers. For example when we go and buy a new pair of shoes, the material need we are are trying to satisfy is in theory that of protecting and covering our feet. However who actually buys the umpteenth pair of shoes just to fill this need? Shoe racks are filled with shoes whose aim is to make us feel good-looking, self-confident, appropriate, … All these psychological and emotional needs deserve to be understood and accepted, and therefore to be fulfilled with a good dose of empathy.
The secret to being empathic is listening. What we mean is true listening, which is achieved not only through our ears but also through our eyes and through our hearts.
As well as the ability to listen we need to learn to be silent, otherwise we can’t focus on the human beings we are interacting with. As the wise teach us, there are at least 3 levels of silence (and of listening): physical silence (avoid talking over other people or doing something else while interacting with them), mental silence which has to do with the ability to silence our self-talk and to concentrate fully on our interlocutors, and the silence of the heart which predisposes us to welcoming and accepting diversity without preconceptions or rigidity. This last point is particularly important because the great difficulty in being empathic is exactly having to cope with our emotions. The word pathos, which we have translated as emotion, also means suffering and some emotions can indeed be painful or difficult to accept.
As well as developing empathy, we will have to show it through the three main channels of human communication:
- Verbal - listening to the words and contents of our interlocutors, noticing every special emphasis or repetition and trying to go beyond the outward appearance of “what” is being said focusing on the reason “why” it is being said. Showing empathy at this level means adapting ourselves and mirroring the language used by our interlocutors.
- Vocal - it consists in identifying some characteristics of voice such as rate, pitch and loudness which hide specific moods. Just like musicians we need to “tune in” with the regis-ter of the person we want to be empathic with.
- Visual - in order to be empathic we need to adopt a posture and move consistenly and in harmony with our interlocutors . Staying and moving in space like they do will allow us to fully understand what they are feeling.
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Discovering the magical world of emotions, exchanging with others at this level, will enrich our relationships exponentially.
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We all have emotional needs, especially the need to experience and follow the energies that come from our hearts. However this feeling is often so pressing and uncontrolled that it scares us, therefore we deny it and become judgemental. The opposite of empathy is indeed judgement, i.e. something which prevents us from feeling and understanding diversities. The reason why we often judge other people has roots in the rigidity we use with our very own feelings, denying them or branding them as inappropriate or wrong. Therefore before empathizing with others we should learn to empathize with ourselves.