It’s an interesting time to be alive. Technology takes up more space in our lives than ever before, and replaces face-to-face interactions and phone calls. And of course, it’s easier to be rude or dismissive when you don’t have to look someone in the eye.
Many of us could benefit from brushing up on our empathy skills. And according to recent research, practicing empathy can not only improve our relationships with family and friends, it can be a major asset at work as well.
Thanks to mounting findings on the specific business benefits of empathy, the Harvard Business Review has argued that, “Empathy should be embedded into the entire organization: There is nothing soft about it. It is a hard skill that should be required from the boardroom to the shop floor.”
And for brokers, whose success depends on how well you are able to read, relate, and ultimately persuade people, cultivating empathy can be particularly powerful.
Read on to learn more about what exactly empathy is, how it has been shown to improve the lives of those who master it, and how you can cultivate this important trait.
What is empathy?
Put simply, empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions and imagine how they might be feeling.
If you are what’s called an “empath,” this comes extremely easily to you. You are so sensitive to others that if, for example, your friend is sad, you might feel sad yourself. Or, if a coworker is feeling frustrated, you can understand exactly how they feel and can imagine feeling the same way.
For empaths, relating to others is natural. On the other side of the spectrum are people like psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists. These individuals experience little to no empathy and find it difficult to relate to or sympathize with others because they have no interest in understanding how they feel.
How can we become more empathetic?
Whether you identify more with the former or the latter group, there’s good news—your ability to empathize is not a pre-set trait.
According to a study by Erica Hepper, even those who exhibit the most narcissistic traits can be taught to feel empathy. The study by Hepper et al. concluded that simply by being told to imagine how others feel by taking on that person’s perspective, narcissists could become more empathetic. It might sound obvious, but the study was groundbreaking in the psychology community because it proved that intervention is possible and worthwhile.
What does this mean for you? Even if you don’t immediately relate to others in personal or professional settings, simply trying to understand how another person feels can have an impact.
All of us possess what are called, “mirror neurons,” which allow us to tune into how others might be feeling. We might not immediately understand why our client doesn’t like a space we’ve carefully picked out to show them, but we can understand the creepy sensation of that spider crawling up their leg. This is thanks to mirror neurons.
Like any other part of the body, mirror neurons need to be activated in order to help us. Marcia Reynolds Psy.D. argues that our cognitive brain can suppress our empathetic brain and offers some practices for reversing this. By practicing techniques such as the ones suggested by Marcia, we might eventually catch on to why our client isn’t thrilled with our work.
How can empathy help you become a better broker?
So, how can you apply all this to your work? There are a few key points to keep in mind:
- Exercise your mirror neurons. Thanks to the discovery of these brain cells, we know that our brains not only help us interpret our surroundings cognitively, but also through feeling. While empaths, or hyper-empathetic people, might have more sensitive mirror neurons, they are present in all people. So if empathy isn’t second nature to you, there’s hope. You just need to practice.
- Take on a new perspective. According to research, even those who displayed the most narcissistic behavior were able to increase empathy simply by being told to take on another’s perspective. When was the last time you truly tried this in a sales situation? We know that our cognition—thinking rather than feeling—can suppress our ability to empathize. But in professional situations, most of us are trained to think our way through tough situations. Next time you find yourself at an impasse, take a pause to tap into the other person’s perspective.
- If you’ve got it, flaunt it. According to the Harvard Business Review, “Empathy is de-prioritized, and relegated to the status of just yet another HR initiative that looks good in the company newsletter. It is seen as a soft and frilly add-on rather than a core tool.” As a result, it has typically been characterized as a “soft skill” as opposed to a “hard skill”, but according to the Harvard Business Review, this perception is changing. One CEO HBR interviewed said, “Empathy is not a soft nurturing value but a hard commercial tool that every business needs as part of their DNA.” Don’t be afraid to emphasize this skill as you strengthen it. Your ability to listen to, interpret, and empathize with those around you will make you an asset to your team.
Whether or not your organization has started to recognize empathy as a critical skill, you can lead by example and start enacting the practice today.