empathy in small businessHarper Lee penned the famous quote, “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” in the 1960 release of To Kill a Mockingbird. Since that time this statement has been used countless times to chide to anyone showing a perceived lack of empathy. But empathy is no easy skill to develop.

Trying to understand the perspective of every person on your team is a challenge most of us would not even pretend to undertake. But, as business leaders and small business owners we must do our best to know as much as possible about the point of view of those that work for us, with us, and those that we serve. We do this if we want to harness the full power of individual contributions and better understand the motivation and interests of our clients. This knowledge can be the difference between a good and a great performance. It is certainly the difference between a good and a great leader.

What is empathy? 

Empathy is the ability to understand what another person is feeling. Showing empathy involves seeing things from another person’s perspective so that you can understand and relate to his or her feelings — and even value them. Empathy also allows a safe place for employees to make mistakes. It values integrity and honesty.

And perhaps most difficult of all for a small business owner, empathy means putting the needs, issues, and concerns of others ahead of business vision and strategy.

How does empathy contribute to success?

The ability to empathize, understand, build rapport, show concern, encourage, engage, and connect with direct reports is key to successfully leading teams. Valuing others, focusing on individual uniqueness, and preserving an individual’s dignity provides an environment of empowerment and engagement. An empathic leader creates security and improves employee satisfaction. Empathy is a key leadership skill.

Understanding the viewpoint of your clients allows you the opportunity to align your goods and services to meet their needs and expectations.

Practice empathy

Do not be surprised if developing empathy challenges you to get in touch with your own feelings on a particular matter. In fact, empathy is part of the emotional intelligence package. The ability to empathize with others is relative to a person’s capacity to identify, feel and understand his own feelings first and then to be capable of understanding alternate points of view. It is easiest to empathize if you have had or can create similar situations. Developing empathy takes practice. Here are a few suggestions on developing your empathy skill:

  1. Ask: Ask others to give you their perspective on a situation. You might use a phrase like, “Help me understand how that looks to you” or “Help me understand how you feel about what has happened.”
  2. Listen: Once you have asked for the perspective of others listen — really listen — to what they have to say. Clarify what you hear. You might say, “So, let me see if I have heard what you are trying to tell me,” and then repeat what you heard, or “If I understand correctly you view this as X.”
  3. No judgment: Remember that you do not need to “solve” or “qualify” an issue. You are just “hearing” and trying to understand. You do not need to share your opinion. You do not need to take a position. You are listening to the point of view of another person. Be aware of your biases. Set them aside.
  4. Look for similarities, not differences: In almost every case you will find that there are some similarities between your’s and other’s perspectives. Look for them. Bring them to light. You might even ask, “How do you think we differ on this point and how are we the same?”
  5. Show compassion: The next time you are in a situation where someone disappoints or acts a way you feel is inappropriate, calm your anger and try to show compassion. Let your mind sort through the reasons the situation might have occurred or why the other person might have reacted or behaved in a certain way —then ask.

I offer one last suggestion and a challenge. As small business owners we are creators of our own destiny. We trust ourselves and our opinions. We have to. In doing so we often lose the ability to see the world and others in it as they are. My challenge to you is to try to see more of your world as if you are seeing it for the first time, perhaps as through the eyes of a child. Allow yourself to be amazed at the similarities and the differences. Be brave enough to be surprised. Let the wonder of so many thoughts, ideas, and creations wash over you and enjoy the pleasure it can bring to know you just a part of something so much larger.

This is part six in a series of posts on leadership. View earlier posts here.