If I had to identify one skill critical to your success, it would be empathy. I’m in full agreement with this observation about its importance: Empathy is the most important skill you can practice. It will lead to greater success personally and professionally and will allow you to become happier the more you practice.
The successful practice of empathy is essential to all our interactions, including those you have with prospects and clients.
I’ve researched empathy extensively and teach it as part of my workshops. Nevertheless, I recently learned that my understanding was incomplete.
My wife is an accomplished artist. She works very hard on her paintings. She often sends me images of her work, showing me how a particular painting is progressing.
She spent several weeks working on one painting. She returned home and told me she threw it out and was going to start again.
As someone trained in empathy, I thought I knew the right response, which would put me in her shoes and experience the pain I assumed she was feeling. I said: That must be so frustrating for you.
I thought it was the perfect empathetic response.
She replied: Not at all. It was actually liberating. I learned a lot. It will actually be easier for me to start all over again.
I made a common error. Instead of understanding what she was feeling, I assumed her feelings were the same as mine would be in her situation.
A recent study described my flawed process as “perspective mistaking.” Through an elaborate series of experiments, the authors concluded our assumptions about the perspectives of others – including people we presumably know really well – are often incorrect.
There’s an intermediate step we should take before formulating a response we believe is empathetic. It’s disarmingly simple: Ask the other person directly for their perspective.
In the example with my wife, here’s what I should have said initially: What motivated you to do that?
That question would have elicited her real feelings. I would then have said: You must feel really good about that decision.
That response would have been genuinely empathetic.
Resource of the week:
I recommend this blog post by Chad Fowler, which discusses how empathy enhances our interactions with others.