If you’ve wondered how to develop empathy, it is possible.
It may be challenging at times, especially when dealing with difficult personalities or in a charged emotional state.
But practicing empathy has a place even at work, and it’s possible to tap into it in appropriate situations.
Emotional Intelligence and Empathy
It’s well established that emotional intelligence is a critical trait for strong leaders. People with well developed emotional intelligence do better in their careers and even make more money.
And empathy is a foundational trait for emotional intelligence.
Understanding how someone may think and feel helps you make better decisions based on this information.
But knowing how to develop empathy doesn’t come naturally for everyone. Sometimes you need to work a little to get there.
We usually begin learning empathy in childhood.
Our brains develop the capacity to understand that people may behave based on certain beliefs when we’re little.
A study published in Nature showed that children’s brains develop the capacity to understand others at a young age. And this helps them determine how other people will behave. So there’s evidence that you begin understanding other people even at a young age.
But it is possible that you or someone you work with has a hard time with understanding other people’s feelings.
If you were raised in a family that didn’t show emotion, it might not come naturally for you. Some families even see showing emotion as a sign of weakness, and this could result in training yourself to shut down your feelings.
But emotions are a normal and healthy part of life.
And we’ve established that there are many valid reasons to use empathy at work.
Or it might be that you do well with emotions, until you’re stressed or dealing with a difficult person.
In this case, you may need tactics for how to develop empathy in challenging situations. These tactics are easy to use and will help you in showing empathy even if it doesn’t come easily.
Empathy and Leadership
Empathy is an important trait for leaders. To lead teams, you need to motivate others, get buy-in, and inspire people to follow you.
If you lack the ability to understand others, you’ll likely be less successful as a leader.
Once a new Sr. VP was hired in my office. This was a Fortune 100 company with thousands of employees at my site.
When we first crossed paths, he stopped briefly to chat. He asked my name, which I thought was a nice gesture.
However, every time we crossed paths after that, he greeted me by name. It made such an impression on me I’ve never forgotten it. Taking the time to pay attention and remember people can help you stand out as a leader.
Good leaders know making others feel important is valuable. They’re also in tune with how other people feel.
This is one way empathy shows up in great leaders.
How to Develop Empathy
These easy approaches can help you tap into how others may feel.
1. Get exposure to people and cultures different from your own
By getting more exposure to people from many different backgrounds, you can gain a deeper understanding of people who are different from you. Traveling to different countries is wonderful if you can do it. But you don’t have to invest the time or budget to get insight into other cultures, religions, or people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Step outside of your usual circle of friends and influence. Expose yourself to new ideas and experience.
Attending events, festivals, or even walking around different parts of town can broaden your exposure to other ways of life.
Have conversations with people you wouldn’t normally talk to.
Broaden your exposure to different ways people think and live.
2. Be curious
Curiosity helps you approach people and situations with a desire to understand.
When you approach from curiosity, you’re more likely to give others your full attention.
Active listening and asking questions are great ways to learn more about what others are thinking and feeling.
Watch body language in addition to listening to words for more clues to how someone might feel. And the way someone speaks can give you even more insight.
3. Ask open ended questions to gather more information
Asking open ended questions gives you the chance to gather more information. Getting others to talk is a valuable tool to get insight into what they’re thinking and feeling.
Try to see how much information you can gather from someone else before you share.
Ask open ended questions about something in their life. It can be work or family, or hobbies.
If they share information, continue to ask questions based on what they’ve shared. You’ll be surprised how well this works.
People love sharing information and will likely be willing to tell you more, if you simply ask.
4. Check your biases / prejudice
You may have beliefs about someone because of the way they look, their religion, their nationality, or even their accent.
And these biases can impact how you think about and interact with others. It could be happening without you even knowing it.
Make sure you’re not judging someone solely based on your beliefs.
And people notice if you treat them unfairly. It could cost you.
Before my husband and I married, I was in the market to buy a new car.
My then fiancé and I went to a car dealership and I was ready to buy a car that very day. The salesman kept telling my fiancé all about the cars they had. Stephen pointed to me and said, “talk to her. She’s the one buying the car.”
But he wouldn’t.
The man wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. Even when I asked questions, he looked straights at my fiancé when answering.
I don’t know what bias he was bringing to the negotiation, but there was no way I was giving him my money. I finally said, “I’m leaving. Let’s go.” and we turned to walk out. It’s as if the man came out of a dream and suddenly shouted, “NO! Wait, don’t go!”
Too late, buddy.
I bought a car from someone else later that day.
To make sure you’re not bringing biases to an interaction,note how you feel and what you think when you encounter people who trigger internal reactions for you. Question your thoughts and examine where they might be coming from. And make a point to be more aware of this in your interactions in the future.
5. Look for commonalities or connection
Finding something you have in common with another person can help you experience more empathy for them.It can help you feel a connection that otherwise might not be there.
Whether it’s an alma matter, hobbies, music, or just having children, see if there’s something you share in common. This connection could help you have more empathy as you work through challenges or find agreement.
6. Consider different perspectives
No one else has lived the exact life experience you’ve lived. Different experiences, thoughts, and attitudes make you who you are.
Everyone brings a different mix to the table.
When considering another person’s perspective, think about what might be going on in their lives that could be impacting them. Do they have a different background or experience that shapes who they are and their thoughts and beliefs?
When you understand more about where they’re coming from, you can acknowledge and work from there.
If you don’t understand someone’s perspective, you can ask them to tell you more about why they think the way they do. Often people are happy to do so. The key is to do it in a way that doesn’t feel threatening. If they believe you’re only asking in order to attack and argue, they’re not likely to share.
Ask in a non-threatening manner.
You can say, “I’m not sure where you’re coming from on this. Can you help me understand?” or “That’s a perspective I hadn’t considered. Can you tell me more about that?”
This can give you much better insight into their point of view.
7. Look from your heart
You may need to interact with someone who’s very difficult to deal with. And it might be particularly hard to find any empathy in those situations. If you’re dealing with a workplace bully or someone who shows little care for others, this can be challenging.
If you find yourself questioning how to develop empathy even in these situations, try using your heart.
If you need to have productive communication with someone who’s difficult to deal with, remind yourself they are human, after all. They have backgrounds that have made them the person they are today. You don’t have to like them or agree with their beliefs or choices.
But if you need to negotiate, you need to find a way to communicate productively.
Dig deep and try to identify what they might be feeling and why. Think about the situation and how it might be impacting them and draw from that.
If you find it hard to tap into your emotions, it’s still possible to develop empathy.
Using these approaches can help, even if you’re dealing with someone who’s difficult.
If you know others who need guidance on how to develop empathy, share this article. The world can be divided in many ways. Working to better understand one another is good for everyone.
There are multiple situations at work empathy can give you an advantage. Negotiation, building rapport, reaching customers are just a few.
To learn more, read 15 Ways to Make Empathy Your Secret Superpower at Work