Empathy the most powerful word in business

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 14, Issue No. 12b
April 15, 2016

By Dan Coughlin

To me, empathy means working to understand what another person is thinking and feeling, and then responding in an effective way.

I’m convinced that empathy is the most important characteristic to building a successful organization.

Empathy Impacts Every Aspect of an Organization

With empathy you can create products and services that customers truly need even if they don’t know they need them. Once they discover how helpful the product or service is for them, they will start to feel that they can’t live without it. Who knew we all had to have smart phones?

Empathy allows us to be effective innovators. In their book, Creative Confidence, David and Tom Kelley wrote that empathy is the driver of consumer insights and innovation. You need to step into the world of customers in order to truly understand the real issues that they deal with when using a specific product or service. You can’t be optimally innovative if you don’t understand what other people are thinking and feeling in the situations you’re trying to improve. These two brothers created IDEO, one of the leading design and innovation companies in the world.

Empathy allows you to figure out how to respond to different employees and meet their different needs at different times.

Empathy helps business leaders to have the courage to leave a proven strategy and move in a more effective direction when they realize the old approach is no longer in tune with what people are feeling and thinking.

By standing in tune with what customers are thinking and feeling, you can continue to strengthen your brand.

In his book, Humans Are Underrated, Geoff Colvin worked to identify what humans can do better than computers. The list was surprisingly short. He landed primarily on empathy and collaboration. Then he highlighted why these attributes are so critically important. He explained that the key to being successful in the 21st Century is to embrace our primary human attributes and use them even more often. We no longer have to do what computers can do so much faster than we can do. What we need to do more of is to work to understand what other people are thinking and feeling, and then respond in effective ways that help them to achieve what they want to achieve.

Empathy is Not Sympathy

Sympathy primarily means feeling another person’s sorrow or sadness and responding with compassion. That’s not what empathy means. Empathy is understanding another person’s thoughts and feelings and responding in an effective way. You might respond with compassion, you might respond by asking a question or offering a suggestion, and you might respond by making a stern statement. When a person tells you he’s been wronged by another person and explains the situation, you might say, “It sounds like you got your ego entangled in the other person’s decision. Is that possible?” Or you might say, “I think you’re feeling anger, and that anger appears to be justified. Now I encourage you to forgive the person, let go of the anger, and move on with your life.” Effective responses come in many different forms. The key is to help the person move toward achieving what he or she wants.

Empathy is the highest form of effective communication because it’s based on deep listening, reflection, discernment, and response.

Empathy Is Not About You, It’s About the Other Person

If someone shares news that is negatively going to affect him or her and your first thought is about your own well-being, then you’re not being empathetic. If a customer tells you that he is dealing with a crisis and has been downsized from his company and can no longer fulfill his commitment to you, true empathy is to work to understand what that person is thinking and feeling at that moment. If your first concern is your invoice not being fulfilled, you’re not being very empathetic. Think about the long-term well-being of the person, and you will greatly increase your chances of building a strong, long-term relationship with that person.

Practice Being Empathetic

Empathy is not a complicated thing to do. You sit. You listen. You consider what you heard and what you saw. You try to discern what the other person is thinking and feeling. You validate your interpretation by saying, “Here’s what I think you’re thinking and feeling right now: _____ . Do I have that right? If not, what are you thinking and feeling right now about this topic?”

If you do that on a regular basis, you will steadily sharpen your ability to be truly empathetic with other people. It’s a skill that you will be able to use in many facets of your personal and professional life.

Empathy Goes Both Ways

Johnny Carson was asked during the height of his fame what the key was for his success. He said, “The most important thing to me, I think, is the empathy that you have to have for the performer. I think empathy with the audience is the greatest thing that a performer can have if he’s going to be successful as an entertainer. They have to like him. And if they like the performer, then you’ve got 80% of it made.”

It took me a long time to understand this comment from Carson, but then I started thinking about The Tonight Show. Even when a joke bombed, the audience would hang in there with Carson as he would pause and tap on the microphone. Then they would laugh. They wanted him to succeed. On camera, he was remarkably likeable and people wanted to empathize with him. They wanted to understand what he was thinking and what he was feeling. I remember watching his non-verbal expressions and wondering what he was thinking and feeling as he interviewed different people or he was doing a skit.

If you’re genuine, people will want to understand you. And that’s a good thing when you want to build a relationship that can help both of you to become more effective. If you can get your audience to want to understand what you’re thinking and feeling, then they will respond to you in an effective way.


To learn how to work directly with Dan Coughlin as an Executive Coach, click here.