You know the old adage: ‘When it comes to business, leave your emotions at the door.’ Perhaps that works when your job is following a clear protocol. However, in offices all across the world there are people doing business whose jobs depend on their ability to make sense of the many emotions involved in any given project. Empathy, mindfulness and self-awareness are obviously key skills for these people, despite traditionally being seen as an impediment to strong leadership and good business practice. shares his thoughts on empathy and business.
To be effective in the creative industry, you need big doses of empathy. There’s very little we do that doesn’t involve stepping into someone else’s shoes – whether you’re creating an ad, a film, a speech, a chair, you need to understand other people’s feelings and what makes them tick. How do you successfully get through your day without doing that?
Despite this, when I first started talking to people at work about empathy, I was met with resistance – ‘I don’t think we need to start getting all touchy feely!’ Who said empathy is the ‘soft option’? Taking time to understand and share the feelings of another is no easy ride – and you need to brace yourself for some tough introspection and a few home truths.
I’ve been working in the creative industry for more than a decade and I have yet to come across a company that includes empathy in its training programme, let alone self-awareness. It surprises me that developing meaningful relationships with others, bettering interpersonal and personal skills and managing emotions aren’t higher on the agenda, more ‘centre stage’. How can you develop powerful, authentic bonds with clients and co-workers without it? Ask yourself whether you really want to work in an environment where the relentless pursuit of individual goals, without consideration for others, is normal, OK, even rewarded?
If you’re a manager, emotional intelligence in general should have a place at all levels of your business. But there’s no point in preaching to team members about the benefits of an empathetic, self-aware approach without taking time to learn about your own strengths and weaknesses.
A good way to do this is to get yourself a professional mentor. You need someone to help you work on your self-awareness continuously, to help you see your blind spots and weak points – and to force you be more honest with yourself. Then you could think about setting up a mentorship scheme in your company. One Minute Mentoring by Claire Diaz-Ortiz and Ken Blanchard talks you through why mentoring is the secret ingredient to professional and personal success and is a great place to start.
We’ve just finished setting up our mentoring programme at Forever Beta and we’re starting to share our process with clients. A neat side effect of our approach is that it helps create stronger bonds within your company, which in turn will lead to people feeling more connected, which in turn makes them more willing to offer help and share ideas. Win, win, win.
Empathy helps you to better understand your clients, their teams and even colleagues. It can also help you get a better understanding of your own team. A simple exercise to get the ball rolling is with an empathy map. Asking what the consumer/client/stakeholder might be thinking or feeling, or what their worries and aspirations could be, can lead to some powerful insights about your audience.
Much has been written about mindfulness in recent years, but it is hugely important when it comes to empathy and self-awareness. It’s about training your attention. It allows you to wake yourself up to your automatic responses and deal with them in a more deliberate fashion – after all, emotional competence is not just about recognising your reactions, but also about expressing them appropriately. It’ll also help you become a better mentor too, as you have to focus and be able to give all your attention to the individual sitting across the table from you.
There’s been quite a bit of research into how literary fiction improves the reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling. It’s about experiencing life from someone else’s point of view. Pick up a good book and try to fully immerse yourself in that environment. It’s important to say that, on that front, not all novels are created equal. The latest science that I’m aware of recommends reading ‘writerly writing’ to increase empathy. Writerly writing is where you fill in the gaps and participate. Some styles are more ‘readerly’, very entertaining but all the work has been done for you and you play a more passive role. I know, I loved The Martian, too, but it doesn’t quite fit the bill here. I’d be very grateful to readers for any suggestions they might have for the most engrossing novels they’ve ever read!
Lastly, accept that it’s difficult. You’re not going to have a team of master empathisers tomorrow. And when the pressure is on, people might default to more self-centred or less thoughtful patterns. It happens. Peak performance doesn’t come easily and it’s hard to maintain. Look for training methods that are sustainable for you and your business. Or at least start a book club.
Marcelo Peretti Kuhn, is the Head of Strategy and Culture, Forever Beta