Sunday, February 14, 2010

Empathy: You can't effectively lead a team, serve a customer or communicate with a co-worker without it

Valentine's Day seemed the perfect day to write about empathy. Not that empathy is a touchy-feely, mushy kind of thing. It is something that we can give to any frustrated or upset person we encounter. I like to think of empathy as the ability to step into someone else's shoes and see the world through their eyes. When we have it, it's far easier to avoid falling into two traps: condescension and defensiveness. I saw the former in full force recently. The manager of an IT department at a big company was in a training I was leading. The disdain she felt toward her less technologically savvy customers—and they were co-workers, incidentally—was startling. I immediately thought of three emotions that employees who are having a computer problem are grappling with: they're frustrated that they can't get their work done, they feel stupid that they can't fix the problem and they feel at the mercy of the IT department.

Part of this is just plain people skills. Rather than immediately hitting the frustrated person with a barrage of questions—many of which they can't answer—we can say something like, "Whew, that's gotta be frustrating. May I ask a few quick questions so I can get to the bottom of this?" In two brief sentences you've projected empathy and a sense of urgency about fixing the problem. Empathy's not really so hard if you think about it. After all, we've all been there!

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