"I don't have time to be empathetic."
This is something I hear not infrequently, usually from executives whose calendars are the stuff of nightmares. They don't have time to run to the bathroom between meetings, much less think of the nicest way to phrase a piece of constructive feedback, or have drawn out conversations about feelings. When everything is urgent and the company's future hinges on speed of execution, direct communication seems like the only choice--even if it borders on "blunt."
However, in my opinion, this misses the true meaning--and value--of empathy.
The dictionary definition of "empathy" is "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another." Note that it's not "taking extended periods of time to talk out every issue," which is unfortunately how it's often interpreted.
When someone is regarding empathy as a fluffy time sink, I like to bring the conversation back to the true definition of the word by reframing it as "perspective taking." And using this definition, empathy actually saves time--both immediately and in the long run.
For example, several years ago, I got caught in the middle of an issue between two departments. Person A, representing the first business unit, wanted to take X action, and was arguing passionately in support of it. Person B from another team thought that was the exact wrong thing to do for a laundry list of reasons. After several long and heated emails, meetings, and chat conversations, the two sides were no closer to a resolution.
I was invited to the next meeting on the topic. As I listened to each side argue their point, I was struck that they weren't talking about the same thing. It became clear that Person B didn't really understand the problem that Person A was so concerned about--and that the context each was bringing to the conversation was worlds apart.
Because neither person had taken the time to ask about the other's perspective--or attempt to put themselves in the other's shoes--several hours had been wasted attending unproductive meetings and writing ineffective emails. I couldn't help but think about how much more efficient it would have been to simply ask, "Hey, can you help me understand where you're coming from?" as soon as the disagreement cropped up. Indeed, as soon as the two parties got on the same page, they reached a mutually agreeable solution within 30 minutes.
If we redefine empathy as perspective taking, it doesn't work against efficiency--in fact, it's a boon. The sooner we seek perspective, the earlier we get on the same page, the faster we can work together to get to a solution. It's as simple as that.
So if you think you don't have time to be empathetic, I would argue that you don't have time not to be. Direct communication and empathy are not mutually exclusive, and when they coexist, the entire business is better for it.