Henry Ford is quoted as having said, "Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?" Starting with the industrial revolution, technical skills and physical capabilities were the most important for getting a job and to be the best at it. Thinking was left to a few managers. The role of employees was to execute.
However, at the dawn of the 21st century, the importance of soft skills became apparent. School systems began to emphasize the importance of those skills. Critical thinking, communications, collaboration, and creativity are the 4 C's that the education system focuses on.
Of all the soft skills, there is one that stands out and, in fact, is the basis for being successful in the others: empathy. Here is why.
1. "Go into a meeting only if you know the outcome"
That's advice the CEO of the first company I worked for in Silicon Valley gave me. Initially, I didn't understand--how can you know the outcome? As he explained, if you do your homework, understand the motivations of the other participants, and empathize with them, the outcome of the meeting will be much more predictable.
Empathy allows you to understand the motivations of the other side to the negotiations. Understanding what's more important and what's less important to them is key to knowing what concessions to make and where to hold your ground. Empathy will help you "win" in negotiations, or reach the best "win-win" outcome, whichever you choose.
3. Design thinking
There is a reason that empathy is the first of five blocks in Ideo's Design Thinking framework. It is defined as "a skill that allows us to understand and share the same feelings that others feel. Through empathy, we are able to put ourselves in other people's shoes and connect with how they might be feeling about their problem, circumstance, or situation." Empathizing with the target customers allows you to identify the right solution to their problem.
4. Effective teamwork
The most effective, productive, and creative teamwork is built on the ability to conduct constructive conflict. It's the ability to passionately argue the issues. For that, you must allow yourself to be vulnerable with your teammates, ask stupid questions, provide direct feedback, and receive it too. It is based on trust, and trust is based on predictability of the others. That predictability stems from empathizing with your teammates. Understanding their perspectives, backgrounds, and hot buttons will build that predictability, trust, and thus effective teamwork.
5. Conscious capitalism
Conscious capitalism is based on building businesses that do good, trusting that positive financial results will be the natural outcome. To fulfill the mission of conscious capitalism, you must first empathize with your customers to identify what's important to them, and focus on that. That was the story of the founding of Whole Foods Market by John Mackey, the co-author of the book Conscious Capitalism.
6. Raising investments
Different investors have different motivations for investing in companies. Your odds of getting the investment you need increase exponentially if before presenting to investors you do your homework: Understand their backgrounds, investment history, preferences, and biases. In other words--empathize with them. Only then will you be able to focus on what's important to the investors you pitch.
7. Interviewing for a job
The hiring manager sitting across the table from you during the interview is not hiring as an act of charity. She is hiring because she has specific needs. Too often candidates show up to a job interview focusing on what they bring to the company, based on past experience, education, and skills. However, empathizing with the hiring manager, understanding her company's needs, and then showing how your experience, education, and skills address those specific needs will go a long way to improve your chances of being hired by her.
Many sales people focus maniacally on what they offer. They focus on the benefits of their product or service, and refuse to understand why you say that the product may not be right for you. My wife, Anat, is the best salesperson I've ever seen. At a trade show in New York City, I heard her say to a customer, "This product is not a good fit for you." It takes courage and self-confidence for a salesperson to say that. But more than that--it takes empathy to understand the real needs of your potential customers to be able to determine whether you have the right solution for them, or that you might be wasting your time and theirs in trying to sell them what you have.
9. Customer service
How often do you complain about the poor quality of customer service? How refreshing is it to have a customer service representative who really tries to understand your specific situation? In a highly competitive marketplace, customer service is a strong differentiator. Customer service representatives who empathize with their customers, understand what they are going through, and reflect those things in conversations with the customers, differentiate good customer service representatives from the rest.
When you ask children what class they like the most, the answer you get is not based on the interest they have in the subject. Instead, it is based on how much they like the teacher. The more a teacher can relate to students and empathize with them, the more that teacher will make students feel good about themselves. His or her teaching, in turn, will be much more effective. I hated literature in high school, until I got my literature teacher in my senior year. She empathized with me. She made me feel good about myself. She made me like literature. Since then I have written and published seven books, and close to 200 articles. Including this one ...