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What’s in it for you?

13 November 2013

While businesses are used to getting into the hearts and minds of their customers, Jilly Forster wonders how come empathy is dropping away and how can companies revitalise this most important of human emotions?

We all understand sympathy. Someone is suffering. We see it, we may do something about it. We may not feel it. That’s the job of empathy. But we’re not as comfortable with empathy as we are with sympathy. We’re even confused over the words we use to describe it – ‘empathic’ or ‘empathetic’? There’s no problem with plain old ‘sympathetic’.

However, we describe it, we need to understand what empathy really means. Stats show that empathy has dropped in people over the last 30 years, particularly accelerating over the last 10. What does that say about a person? Is it the case that, nowadays, you no longer have any real friends? That, instead, you have an audience you have to amuse and entertain, so that people ‘like’ you? It’s true to say that Facebook and Twitter fuel a constant need to be acknowledged, suggesting a rather fragile and weak sense of identity. If social media brings people together, what kind of fractured individuals are we talking about?

Empathy: the ability to place yourself in another person’s shoes; the art of understanding, being aware, being sensitive to and really getting another person’s feelings and experiences.

Physical contact is perhaps the most powerful form of communication – and is also very important for establishing empathy. Body language, eye contact, voice – all of these are important for establishing empathy, and yet none of them are available on Facebook. Words only account for 10% of impact whereas body language, eye contact, and voice are invaluable for trying to gauge how people are thinking and feeling.

A common characteristic of individuals who are successful as business leaders, teachers, parents, spouses, or healthcare professionals is their ability to be empathetic.  Empathy builds connection, eases one’s stress and allows others to know that they are not alone in the world.

Like any good communication tool, empathy is a skill that organisations must hone and improve today. If we want others to appreciate what we are communicating, if we want others to respond to and work cooperatively with us, then we must consider their perspective and how they perceive us.

Let’s not diss technology.  Is Google Glass going to help us improve empathy? It will give people an augmented reality, with information and facts constantly bombarding them… on top of your five senses. Very soon, people may well be sporting a pair of charcoal Glass shades as a status symbol. Everyone will want one, and it may mean that going back to living a life relying on just five senses will be very odd.

If our five senses are no longer enough to develop the crucial empathy we need to get along as human beings, we can still get better at fine-tuning what we’ve got. It may be as simple as having an experience that enables you to understand. That’s exactly what we did at Forster through a series of ‘ageing up’ sessions that helped younger people experience and understand the issues associated with ageing.  We think such experiences are invaluable. We believe organisations of all kinds could be using their imagination to do more of them.

If we fail to constantly use our senses and the communications skills available to us, we’ll forget how, or delegate them to a robot on our face. We’re not there yet!