Empathy might seem like a nice-to-have extra, a touchy-feely quality that's most important in personal relationships and being a nice person outside work, but expert after expert insists this most human of attributes is actually a business essential. Having empathy, they say, improves your leadership, teaches you to ask the right questions, boosts teamwork, allows you to understand your customers, and can even help you get a loan.
All of which is good to know, but do each of us have any control over the amount of empathy we feel? Is our ability to sympathize with others' something that's set in childhood and unlikely to be altered with life experience? Can you learn to get inside others' heads?
If anyone should know the answer to these questions it's Roman Krznaric. He is a founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, an empathy adviser to organizations like Oxfam and the United Nations, and a former teacher of sociology and politics at Cambridge University. Recently he shared the latest science on empathy with UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.
"Empathy doesn't stop developing in childhood. We can nurture its growth throughout our lives--and we can use it as a radical force for social transformation," he writes. "Research in sociology, psychology, history--and my own studies of empathic personalities over the past 10 years--reveals how we can make empathy an attitude and a part of our daily lives." If you want to increase your empathy quotient, he suggests developing several habits, including these:
Getting Curious About Strangers
That guy across the train car isn't just a potential competitor for the one open seat, he's also an object lesson in empathy, Krznaric insists. "Highly empathic people (HEPs) have an insatiable curiosity about strangers. They will talk to the person sitting next to them on the bus, having retained that natural inquisitiveness we all had as children, but which society is so good at beating out of us," he writes. "Curiosity expands our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, encountering lives and world views very different from our own. Curiosity is good for us too: Happiness guru Martin Seligman identifies it as a key character strength that can enhance life satisfaction."
So how do you do curiosity right? Don't just chat about the weather or the local sports team. Instead, try to understand what makes other people tick--especially those who seem quite different from you. "Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with one stranger every week. All it requires is courage," suggests Krznaric.
Listening and Being Vulnerable
Increased empathy only comes through interacting with others, so you want your conversations to be as deep and revealing as possible. In order to do that, you need to develop two interrelated skills, says Krznaric--radical listening and making yourself vulnerable.
"HEPs listen hard to others and do all they can to grasp their emotional state and needs, whether it is a friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer or a spouse who is upset at them for working late yet again," he writes, adding, "but listening is never enough. The second trait is to make ourselves vulnerable. Removing our masks and revealing our feelings to someone is vital for creating a strong empathic bond. Empathy is a two-way street."
Expanding Your Circle of Empathy
Empathizing with a poverty-stricken child or recently laid off friend probably comes naturally. The trick when it comes to increasing your empathy is to challenge yourself to see the perspective of those with whom you have less natural sympathy--perhaps even with your enemies. "A final trait of HEPs is that they do far more than empathize with the usual suspects," Krznaric says. "We also need to empathize with people whose beliefs we don't share."
What does this look like in practice? "If you are a campaigner on global warming, for instance, it may be worth trying to step into the shoes of oil company executives--understanding their thinking and motivations--if you want to devise effective strategies to shift them towards developing renewable energy."
This is also a particularly powerful approach for business leaders. "Bill Drayton, the renowned 'father of social entrepreneurship,' believes that … mastering empathy is the key business survival skill because it underpins successful teamwork and leadership," he points out.
Curious where you're starting from? Greater Good offers an empathy quiz to discover what base rate of empathy you have to work with.