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The role of empathy in business success

4 min read


Do you want to be able to influence others better? Want to make your sales quota? Want to motivate your team? Try practicing empathy.

In my executive coaching work, one of the biggest differentiators of effective leaders I’ve observed is how they practice empathy — being able to put themselves in the shoes of others.  It is a critical part of our emotional intelligence, or EQ, and unlike IQ, we can actually increase our ability to be empathetic.  Studies show that those at the high levels of EQ earn $29,000 more per year than those at lower levels. But how do you actually get more empathetic? I decided to give myself an “empathy challenge.”

My empathy challenge

Watching the news on TV recently about the latest gun-control debate, I decided I was going to practice seeing the other side of the issue. I believe in gun control.  I have never been able to understand why we would want more guns around where they could be used to hurt someone. So I challenged myself to listen to the people advocating for their right to bear arms with the empathy process.

Five steps to greater empathy

  1. Make an active decision that we want to see something from another point of view.  This is 80% of the work in empathy. Most often, we are so blinded by our own strong opinions and our need to be right that we never make this decision.
  2. Become conscious of the filter we’re listening through. Most of our biases are completely unconscious. When we listen to others, we don’t realize that we’re listening with judgment. Listen to how you listen.  Our unconscious biases are like the water fish swim in. We don’t see the water because we have never seen anything other than the water. We take our stances on various issues personally and make these labels part of our identity.  Am I Democratic or Republican? Am I for gun control or not? Am I pro-choice or anti-abortion?
    These labels make us feel safe because now we belong to a certain “tribe” of believers.  In our evolution, belonging to a tribe was very important for our physical safety. It no longer is. Yet, belonging to a tribe is a fundamental human need because it gives us a feeling of community. It is useful — until it stops us from being effective because we cannot see the other point of view.
  3. Wipe your listening slate clean. I actually visualize myself wiping out all the preconceived notions I have about a certain issue or topic. This gets me ready to listen with curiosity rather than judgment.
  4. Go deeper than the issue to find the underlying emotion. Most of us get stuck at the issues and never really try to understand why a person is feeling a certain way. As I did this exercise for the gun control issue and really listened, I understood that those advocating for their right to bear arms are not interested in hurting anyone. They simply want to protect themselves and their families. It’s a very basic human need to feel safe.
  5. Connect with the underlying emotion and acknowledge it. When we understand underlying human emotions, it’s easier to find connection. I felt their fear at not being able to protect themselves or their families. I have felt fear myself. Our human emotions have the capacity to connect us because we have all felt these emotions — fear, anger, love, sadness, joy, disappointment. They are personal and they are universal. In the root of the word empathy “em” means “in,” “path” means “suffering” – empathy is simply feeling the suffering of someone else.

Is this too soft for business? It’s what makes the difference in hard negotiations, in business deals, in leading others, in winning big contracts.  Dr. Thomas Lewis at his talk at Google explains the neuroscience of empathy.  Our brain is wired to be contagious. If we connect with others in an empathetic way, they will likely do the same, creating great space for understanding and influence.

What’s your empathy challenge?

Henna Inam is CEO of Transformational Leadership, a company focused on helping women achieve their potential to be transformational leaders. As a former C-suite executive with Fortune 500 companies, her passion is to help leaders be successful, deeply engaged and create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth and engagement. Connect @hennainam on Twitter and at her blog.