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In Search of Empathy

February 17, 2012

It is a commonly accepted truth that there are only really two kinds of problems: you either have a process problem or a people problem. And, as a senior lawyer told me recently – even the process problems really boil down to people problems. As a practitioner and evangelist for collaboration, co-operation and partnerships for over 20 years I have seen how the success or failure of initiatives mostly comes down to how well we large apes can understand, communicate, solve problems – and work together.

It’s not just getting along and schmoozing (though of course, nothing wrong with that mind…). A deep part of that mysterious skill set called human communication is empathy, the art of ‘stepping into the shoes of another and seeing the world from their perspective’. It’s not just good for interaction, good for us as members of progressive society – it’s a critical building block to innovation too.

At a recent talk at The RSA, Roman Krznaric shared his understanding of empathy – and identified six key habits of highly empathetic people. His work and thinking certainly provides an excellent insight and challenge to policy makers – when so many issues in society require a greater understanding of others. But his work offers profound implications for those of us who are tasked with managing & understanding complex business relationships too.

A cultural & social historian and previously a teacher of sociology and politics at Cambridge – Krznaric’s study of empathy is just one chapter within his excellent new book ‘The Wonderbox – Curious Histories of How To Live.‘ Within it, he explores how we can learn from history to re-think many areas of our lives; from love to money, from travel to creativity. And more besides. If you want to know more – visit his blog or buy the book here. He is a progressive who combines a belief in the common good with a love of individualism and a life worth living – and as a historian he believes we have lots to learn from the past too. As he says; “If we wish to incorporate the lessons of history into our own lives, we may have to defy cultural norms and risk standing out from the crowd.‘ For any reader tasked with building new projects, innovating or changing an organisation – this has a familiar ring to it too.

From Introspection To Outrospection

The 21st century was dominated by individualism (though the 1930’s did a pretty good job at creating some collectivist nightmares..) – with a huge focus on INTROSPECTION. From self actualisation to the hippy movement, from self-improvement books to designer clothes and celebrity – it was always about the focus on self. Barack Obama calls this ‘an empathy deficit’. Krznaric believes that what is needed is a focus on OUTROSPECTION. It’s a neat concept, as relevant for organisations as people. From a community and social perspective – this is how we can overcome prejudice and conflicts. But – read any book or blog on innovation and enabling businesses to adapt to the new economy and this also sounds very, very familiar. Only last week General Electric’s Innovation Barometer pointed out (as they did last year) – that allies, collaboration and partnerships will be the key to business and social progress. The paradox is that whilst most executives acknowledge the importance of them – most businesses are not investing in the relationship development and management

Empathy is not about being nice, or showing pity or sympathy. And its much deeper than rapport too. Rapport is a key skill to find common ground and improve communication but it is a facilitation skill rather than a way of seeing the world. Empathy is deeper. It requires us to ‘look at the world through the eyes of another and understand their beliefs, hopes and fears’. It is an essential part of human interaction and so much of what is good, starts with empathy.

Conversations, Collaborations And Connections

And empathy is a trait for the best leaders, creators, entrepreneurs and executives too. One of the most startling things I learnt when learning how to build and manage commercial partnerships – was to understand the other party, not just your offer. To get to know not just the organisation and business – but the individual personalities involved too. Business text books, law lectures and marketing plans look at the world as a logical, systematic place – and we are taught to rationalise, present, argue and win. It’s all a bit more complicated than that. Many big decisions and projects require career risk, commitment and trust. It all gets very personal. Whilst rapport may help us to communicate better – it is empathy that leads us to truly understand the world from the others point of view. And if we truly believe that innovation is driven by relationships, collaboration and conversation, then we need empathy.  So can we learn to be more empathetic? Certainly, it is something we can understand, recognise and perhaps develop the right habits for. Krznaric has studied the topic from a social, historic and psychological view and identifies Six Habits..

Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People

1 – Empathetic people go beyond simple labels (‘greedy bankers’ and ‘benefit scroungers’ for example)

2 – Empathetic people overcome their personal prejudices

3 – Empathetic people get ‘extreme sport’ about others. They want to understand the life and environment of others..

4 – Empathetic people Practice The Art Of Conversation. This is a key element to collaboration and innovation too. See my blog post ‘Are You In The Conversation Business’ here

5 – Empathetic people believe in change..

6 – Empathetic people develop an Ambitious Imagination – and an ability to explore the views of others.

Do you see these skills in business leaders? Do you have them yourself? As a progressive thinker, Krznaric believes that empathy skills should be taught to children in schools – and that museums should allow us to understand the lives of others, so that as a society we can break down prejudices and barriers. The world would be a better place if there were more empathy in it.

We also know that to encourage innovation and progress in our economy business needs to embrace a spirit of collaboration and conversation. And therefore  – an ability to empathise better with others, be it work colleagues, customers, suppliers and business partners is not just a soft touchey-feeley nice to have.

In a world where its the quality of your personal business relationships that give you a collaborative advantage – empathy may be smartest thing for you to invest in.

Thanks to Royal Society of Arts and Commerce Events

Further information and reading

See www.andrewarmour.com

See www.benchstone.co.uk and connect with Andrew Armour on LinkedIn

See Roman Krznaric’s Outrospection Blog

6 Comments
  1. Andrew, I’m fascinated by the notion of “outrospection” and appreciate your list of 6 traits. As a result of the work I do with consultants, salespeople, and business developers, I am clear that empathy is one of the most important skills for any businessperson to develop–maybe even THE most important. And having just come from a couples retreat where my husband and I spent the weekend learning how to “mirror” each other, I’m convinced it’s an essential tool for human healing. Thanks for raising the bar on the conversation.

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