Business English Skills: Showing Empathy

What is empathy?

If you’re one of those people that think there’s no place for emotions and feelings in the workplace, think again. Empathy — the skill of understanding how another person feels — will give you a real advantage in a wide range of business situations.

Next time you’re in a negotiation, empathy will help you understand what the other person wants — what they really want, not just what they say they want. When one of your customers complains, empathy will help you understand their problem and show you how to avoid it in future. And if you’re a manager, you’ll find it much easier to motivate and persuade your people when you can see things from their point of view.

How do I empathize?

Remember that empathy is something you feel, not something you always have to show. If you want to feel empathy, simply stop talking. Listen to the other person. And think about how they feel and why.

Empathy isn’t always about being nice. In fact, many people use empathy techniques to their own advantage. Expert negotiators will tell you that the most powerful negotiating strategy is simply to stay quiet and listen. Let the other people “talk themselves out.” Very often, they will reveal plenty of information that’s useful for you. If you empathize with them successfully, they might even negotiate with themselves.

Common mistakes with empathy

A common mistake when showing empathy is to turn the conversation round to yourself: “Oh yes, a similar thing happened to me,” or “I know how you feel.” The truth is, you probably don’t know how the other person feels. Even if you do, it won’t make them feel better. In general, avoid the words “I” and “me” when you’re trying to show empathy. It should be about the other person, not you.

Similarly, avoid trying to solve the other person’s problem immediately. Don’t say, “You should do this,” or “Have you tried doing that?” Of course, sometimes problem-solving is a valuable skill, but it can get in the way of empathy. Keep the two things separate. Don’t try to do both at the same time.

Even worse, don’t try to dispute the other person’s feelings or defend yourself — not at this stage, at least. If the other person is feeling frustrated, that’s a fact, not something you can disagree with. You’ll learn a lot more by taking the time to find out why the person is feeling frustrated. Of course, there are times when you need to dispute things and defend yourself, but you can’t do those things while empathizing.

What can I say to show empathy?

A useful word for guessing how others feel is “must”: “Oh no. That must be difficult for you,” or “You must be frustrated.” You can also use the verb “sound”: “That sounds awful!” or “It sounds wonderful!” But it’s often best to keep your opinions to yourself, and simply ask questions like, “What happened next?”, “So what did you do?”, or “What would you like to happen now?”

Another simple technique is to repeat what the other person said, or paraphrase it slightly. For example, if your co-worker says, “I’m really angry. We lost the client,” you could say (in a friendly voice) “You lost your client?” This will encourage your co-worker to talk, with no need for you to express your opinion.

Similarly, in a negotiation, listen carefully to what the other person says, especially when they mention emotions. Use that information to find out what the person really wants. For example, “You said earlier that you’re worried about delays. Are you worried because you’ve had some bad experiences in the past?” “You mentioned that you felt let down by your previous business partner. What can we do to avoid that happening again?”

So next time a co-worker or a client decides to share their emotions with you, don’t see it as a threat, an attack, or a problem to be solved. Think of it as an opportunity to learn some useful information. Just follow the simplest advice of all: stop, listen, and think.

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