by Silvia Castrogiovanni and Elena Pattini*
Empathy, defined as the ability to detect other people’s feelings, constitutes the basis for quality human relationships; however, it is often a capacity we are unable to exploit, mostly due to cultural constraints. This holds true in different social contexts, from personal to professional. However, our empathic capacities can be recruited and trained through constant practice, and become great resources for genuine and productive relationships.
Empathy, in fact, represents the antithesis of individualism, of abuse of power, and of disconnection among human beings – and these are the pillars of stressful environments filled with tension and social conflict.
Active listening with suspended judgment, attitude to observation, and conscious choice of the most appropriate verbal and non-verbal language are just some of the key ingredients of empathic relationships that comply with the values of authenticity and closeness.
Knowing and understanding what is happening in our brain and in the person with whom we interact is an essential prerequisite for training empathy and expressing it also within business realities. Investing time and energy in establishing positive and long-lasting relationships is a sustainable choice that pays back in the long term. An empathic environment can increase understanding among coworkers, quality engagement and leadership efficacy, and can improve relationships with clients and stakeholders. In this way, companies are less exposed to internal or external ‘attacks’, because they are ‘protected’ by a relational network of mutual trust and are more effective in achieving goals.
What is empathy? And how does it work?
Neuroscience offers strong evidence of the fact that we are all connected. The discovery of mirror neurons in the early 1990s by a team at the University of Parma led by Giacomo Rizzolatti provided scientific evidence that humans are biologically ‘programmed’ to connect with each other. Mirror neurons are brain cells that are activated both when we perform a motor act and when we see it being performed by someone else; in other words, they make human brains ‘tune in’ to each other. Remarkably, the same mechanism occurs both during the execution/observation of a motor act and during the expression/observation of emotions. In fact, the subjective experience of emotions (such as joy or pain) and the observation of someone else experiencing the same emotion activate overlapping brain areas, as if the observer was really feeling that emotion.
Mirror neurons are, therefore, believed to be the building blocks of empathy. However, if the automatic activation of these shared representations of emotions was enough to induce empathy, we would be in permanent emotional turmoil. In contrast, it seems that we do not empathize all the time and that far from being automatic, empathy is instead explained by a complex set of cognitive and motivational factors. A deeper understanding of these factors can help us recruit and express our empathic capacities appropriately in everyday life and regenerate and nurture relationships in different personal and professional contexts.
From a professional point of view, the key point is to emphasize the importance of empathy in the company. Doing so will create a useful tool; the voluntary activation of empathic behaviors can transform exploitative and opportunistic relationships into more positive relationships in which people feel more valued and appreciated. This applies to any level, activity or sector. Let’s consider some examples.
How can managers who lead team members in a company deal with an emergency situation or difficult times at the workplace? How can leaders be empathetic in these circumstances? One of the best ways to show empathy is through conversation, for example by conveying clear messages in a sound relationship based on trust and confidence. It is of strategic importance to increase the value of each team member and listen to their feedback, acknowledging and empowering their role and expertise, so that everyone can feel valued within a trustful context.
Let’s also think about financial consultants who have to deal with the irrational emotions of their clients during a stock market crash. This is a stressful situation that puts even the most expert financial consultant under pressure. Major financial operators confirm that those who show empathy and closeness to the client obtain the best results. During these critical situations, financial consultants should be more proactive with their clients, by reassuring them without underestimating or exaggerating the impact of the situation on their savings, and by ensuring constant support to help them overcome this moment of fear and impulsiveness. The goal is to help their clients make informed choices with the utmost clarity.
Another example comes from conversational marketing, where communication with customers to sell products takes place digitally, through online platforms. Obviously, remote communication – via, for example chat, mail, video chat or telephone – can easily generate many misunderstandings. This is a sort of mediated relationship where the physical presence of the operator, which carries the most effective communication messages, is missing. Expressing empathic capacities in this context means using appropriate language with the right tone of voice to better understand the customer’s wants and needs. Also, the choice of the right words and even emoticons is key to achieve closeness with the customer during written communication. The use of empathy in these forms of remote communication is therefore a fundamental tool for establishing a closer relationship with customers in order to best meet their requirements.
Moreover, nowadays employees are often asked to achieve significant revenue goals in a short span of time, particularly sales representatives. Sales in the commercial sector are constantly under pressure, with increasingly ambitious budgets and shorter deadlines than ever. In this stressful environment, company leaders must be able to systematically welcome feedback from those employees on the frontline and offer them constant support with clear and fast suggestions and operational instructions. This will enable the establishment of empathic relationships that can ease tension and result in increased revenue.
In all these circumstances, empathy represents a really effective antidote against stress. It allows a better connection with clients and collaborators and it provides a way to create relationships based on trust, closeness and proactive behaviours with any partner. Unsurprisingly, empathy has been recognized as one of the key competencies for the future by the European Council.
Empathy, therefore, is a sustainability tool that can help us create a far better environment in which to live and work. It is both something we can learn how to use and a resource that we can use to learn.
*Founder, Kindacom and Vice Chairman, Kindacom Scientific Committee
**first published in: www.weforum.org