Time for a quiz. Ask yourself these three questions:
- Have I ever misinterpreted what someone has said to me?
- Have I ever turned people off because they thought I didn’t understand?
- Have I ever had a business relationship derail because of confusion over intent?
If you answered yes to any of them, congratulations—you are just like most everyone else! Human relationships are complex, and it’s all too easy to misinterpret people’s statements along with the values and intentions that support them.
The good news: You can mitigate or even potentially avoid these possible errors by being empathetic.
The empathy-accuracy connection
Empathy can help reduce errors and misperceptions between you and others. The key is to use so-called empathetic statements and responses in your business dealings and your personal life. When you do, you can better determine whether you have accurately heard and interpreted the information you’re getting from other people. Think of your empathetic statements and responses as trial balloons. They are ways of confirming whether you are on the right track when dealing with someone else or a group of people.
Additionally, empathetic statements and responses tell people not just that you understand them and what they’re saying, but also that you care about them and their positions. That, in turn, can further motivate them to share information with you and trust you. Greater information flow and stronger trust can help you in situations such as negotiations and other types of dealmaking.
A formula for empathetic responding
Empathetic responding can take a number of forms. However, we think the easiest way to be empathetic is to use the following formula for your statements and responses:
What + Why = Empathy
What describes what is going on; why is the explanation for what is going on. For example, you might respond to a person’s statements in this way:
You feel (emotion) because (experience, thoughts, behaviors).
Here are some specific examples:
- “You feel anxious because your partner is not seeing the big picture.”
- “You’re angry because the buyer is trying to pull a fast one.
- “You’re disappointed because you thought you were going to meet the person in charge instead of a lackey.”
- “You want to redo the agreement because there are more opportunities out there and you don’t want to be handcuffed.”
- “You expected to get a chance to help negotiate the deal because you’re the one who brought the other company to the table
Can you see how responses like these can help confirm whether you have heard and processed another person’s statements and information accurately? When you structure your empathetic statement in this way, chances are people will not stop at a “yes” or “no” answer. Instead, they will likely feel heard and want to volunteer additional details that will help expand your understanding of the situation at hand.
Another powerful way to respond empathetically is by using summaries. Summarizing involves articulating the essence of what the other person is saying and where you go from here. It is not a regurgitation of what was said, but rather a distillation of what matters and what actions to take.
Summaries highlight key points, ideas and perspectives. You can also incorporate how the other people are making progress toward achieving their goals. The overarching goal, of course, is to lock in understanding.
Summaries can build rapport as well as provide focus and direction. Some phrases you can use to start summarizing include:
- “To put all this in perspective, you believe …”
- “Based on what we’ve discussed …”
- “If I understand you correctly …”
There are two best practices when it comes to summarizing conversations:
- Use summaries at the right times. Summaries can fit in most anywhere in a conversation to ensure you understand, to make sure the other person knows that you understand, to lock in agreements and to direct the conversation. That said, you will certainly want to summarize at the end of the conversation. That way, you can delineate next steps and get commitment.
- Encourage other people to do the summarizing. It can be very helpful to have the other person do the summarizing. This usually results in that person becoming more psychologically invested in your relationship and its outcomes. It also gives you clues about what the other person found to be the most important moments of your interaction.
Understanding, not agreeing
Caring is central to empathetic responses. By being empathetic, you are demonstrating respect and an appreciation of others. However, this does not mean you necessarily agree with them. Empathy is not about agreeing with the other person, but about understanding where that person is coming from.
Example: You might find some of the values of a business associate abhorrent. Being empathetic means you recognize that person’s values, the genesis of those values and how they motivate the person. But you will probably always continue to find those values abhorrent.
To become empathetic, it is helpful to look in the mirror. Let’s be honest: You have your own faults and failings. Everyone is flawed and dysfunctional to some degree. Hopefully you are accepting of and comfortable with yourself, and whatever dysfunctions you might have do not badly impact your life and happiness.
By accepting your own issues, you may find it easier to accept the dysfunctions of others. Keep in mind that no one is perfect—not even close.
Ultimately, being empathetic means you are able to get inside the frame of reference of other people to understand what they are thinking and feeling and why. It is also your ability to communicate this understanding to them without prejudice. But it doesn’t require you to see eye to eye with other people or adopt their ideas and values.
Guidelines when responding empathetically
- Always think before responding. It is usually a mistake to jump in too quickly with an empathetic comment. Reflect on what you heard, making it clear that you believe you know what it means. How does it relate to what you already know?
- Avoid interrupting to make a point. Most people dislike being interrupted. Do not respond until you have determined that other people are really finished talking. You can always ask if they’re completely finished before you address any concerns.
- Avoid pontificating. As much as possible, keep your responses short. Be as pithy as you can.
- Avoid being judgmental. A person who feels judged is unlikely to open up and share important information with you. Empathy is all about seeing other people’s situations from their perspectives. Again, it is not about agreeing—it’s about understanding.
- Avoid simply parroting what someone said. Simply repeating what you heard is not being empathetic. It doesn’t mean much when you are no better than a recorder. You need to be able to show empathy using your own words and interpretations.
- Respond strategically. It is impossible to respond empathetically to everything someone says. Therefore, as you are listening to someone, you need to concentrate on the most important messages—and then strategically choose what to respond to. You are looking for what is central and most relevant in the particular situation.
Being an empathetic listener and person is a skill that you can learn and hone over time. As such, it can be a powerful tool when you’re dealing with any number of people in a wide variety of situations—in business and in life. When people feel heard, they tend to open up and become more willing to take action steps you want them to take as well as to accept your advice. So hear them, and let them know you hear them, using empathy.