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Empathy: Demand is up but supply down

  • Empathy is a skill no machine can duplicate, one that leads to better business
  • Empathy, or the ability to understand the world of another, is a very human trait

Siddharth Maskeri says being empathetic to his former boss helped him eventually to get an idea for a new business.
Siddharth Maskeri says being empathetic to his former boss helped him eventually to get an idea for a new business.

Two years ago, Siddharth Maskeri suddenly lost his job at the animation company he worked at. “Overnight my boss closed down the unit we were working in. He told the 10 of us working there that we were not productive enough," says the then 38-year-old. NCR-based Maskeri was paying loan instalments on his house and his car, and had a household to support. He felt frustrated and betrayed by his employer. Yet, he stepped back, took a pause, and made an effort to be empathetic. “It’s easy to make someone a villain when what they do conflicts with your desires. But when I spoke to people around, I discovered from the accountant that the unit had been doing badly for a while, and my boss had been fighting to save it. He had just not told us how serious the issue was earlier," says Maskeri, who later wrote a letter of support to his boss, empathizing with his situation.

Desperate for empathy

Empathy, or the ability to understand the world of another, is a very human trait. It has been one of the most potent forces in evolution, says Geoff Colvin, author of Humans are Underrated. It is also the most critical skill for the future workplace, he explains.

It is a skill no machine can duplicate, one that leads to better business, higher levels of customer satisfaction, better communication and collaboration. Being good at it improves your whole life; it helps you read people better, get along with them better, persuade them more effectively and to be less socially anxious.

“Empathy also fosters creativity when it comes to understanding the user and consumer. There’s the famous story of the engineer, who redesigned the MRI scan room to make it less scary for children because he was able to empathize with the children and see the process through their eyes," says Soundari Mukherjea, co-founder of Tvameva Solutions, a Hong Kong- and India-based learning solutions firm. The company uses empathy training in their programmes in customer service, in leadership and more recently, in diversity and inclusion programmes, where empathy helps understand unconscious biases.

Using empathy for creativity became part of Maskeri’s new venture, a storytelling initiative Soulify, as well. Here Maskeri’s efforts at empathy with his former boss paid unexpected dividends when the man who laid him off became his mentor-collaborator and gave him office space for training.

Creativity, better decision-making, greater motivation—if all these are the much touted benefits of empathy, why is it a quality that’s so hard to find?

“The diminishing lack of empathy is because as a society, we are driven by our deliverables, with not enough time to achieve them," says Anna Chandy, Bengaluru-based transactional therapist and chairperson of the Live Laugh Foundation.

The consequences of such a situation can be grave for an organization, says Chandy. “People at work who feel unfairly judged spend all their psychological energy trying to make themselves understood. They are constantly trying to give the impression they are working, instead of actually working. There will be less cooperation and collaboration in the entire organization, which will obviously be very detrimental in getting things done," she adds.

The skills we need are withering because of stress, self absorption and social media. “People simply spend less time in social interactions and more time socializing online, which makes it increasingly difficult to develop empathy and sharpen social skills. Like any skill, empathy comes through the quality of attention. If your attention is continually interrupted by the need to look at your smartphone, you are never really gaining a foothold in the feelings or perspectives of other people," says Robert Greene in his bestselling book The Laws of Human Nature.

If you are looking to ramp up your empathy quotient, below are seven ways that can help.

7 ways to bring back empathy 

Meet face-to-face: “Having an in-person conversation is such an intense, fully engaging experience that it builds our highest mental capabilities," says author Geoff Colvin. Take the time to talk rather than text, and meet face-to-face because virtual interactions don’t have the richness of a face-to-face meeting.

Listen carefully: Try reversing your normal impulse to talk and give your opinion. Instead, listen carefully. Look beyond words to expressions, body language and the tone of voice in order to be able to understand the other person’s moods and motivations, says Anna Chandy.

Suspend judgement: Don’t assume that other people are similar to you or that they share your values. Listen without passing judgement, says Chandy.

Mirror emotion: Make empathetic connections with people by mirroring them. Nod, smile, mimic gestures and postures in a subtle way to help establish a rapport with the person you are talking to, advises Robert Greene.

Gather information: Ask more questions to understand other people and what makes them what they are. These could be situation specific or could be more general. Ask people about their early years and their relationship to their parents and siblings, says Greene. This helps get a read on people’s values, which are mostly established in their earliest years.

Take action: “Empathy may be displayed in words and in actions. When you just use words to convey empathy and that is not followed through by action, you will come across as fake. For example, in a customer service scenario, the first step would be to listen carefully and then respond after acknowledging the mental state and the issue, with action," says Soundari Mukherjea.

Use story-telling: Reading fiction and storytelling creates empathy. Immerse yourself in the characters of a story to let go of preconceptions, to be alive in the moment, and to continually adapt your ideas about people. Siddharth Maskeri says he asks participants to tell their own stories to the group and listen to their colleagues’ stories.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is the author of Career Rules: How to Choose Right and Get the Life You Want.

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