As humans we have an innate desire to feel understood. Showing empathy is one way to make that connection. More than compassion, when we genuinely empathize with someone—or seek to truly understand their emotions, experiences and perspectives—we create a powerful sense of trust.
Empathy is a life skill. It’s important for personal development; by broadening our understanding of others, we also contribute to a more aware and connected society. Empathy can also help improve relationships, from marriages to business partnerships.
Early in my career I learned about the power of empathy: I had a client who was really tough—even her own team was afraid to approach her. When her project that my team was working on flopped, I took it very personally because I didn’t want to let her down.
I went in to meet with her to explain; and when she sensed that I cared about it as much as she did, her defenses immediately dropped. She trusted that I would do everything in my power to make it right. That was my lesson: If you can validate someone’s feelings—let them know you understand where they’re coming from, and that you truly care—that’s what creates trust.
Build empathy like it’s your job. As with any skill, empathy can be developed and strengthened. Practicing these simple everyday habits can help you get there:
Observe. Be intentional about slowing down and taking it all in: pay attention when things change…a colleague’s body language or demeanor: Is he/she unusually quiet or distracted? Are work assignments not up to par? These could be signs of distress.
Engage. Start your conversations with a genuine inquiry: “How are you?” This is especially relevant right now with many of us still working from home, managing family/school/life events while following social distancing rules.
Listen. Offer your full attention—don’t multi-task. And show that you’re actively listening by phrasing or repeating information back to the person you’re engaging with to let them know they are truly being heard and understood.
Affirm. Sometimes the “I feel your pain” response is just what we need to hear to feel supported—to know that we’re not alone in our struggle. Let people know you get them!
Share. Empathy is best practiced with mutual understanding. So don’t hold back: open up and offer input or ideas; share your personal experiences. When you share with others, you break down barriers and create a free-flowing exchange that builds trust.
Our brains are wired for social connection—and empathy is one way to create those bonds. There’s no time like the present to focus on being more mindful about making those connections. Good luck!
Bob De Garmo