Though the concept of empathy might contradict the modern concept of a traditional workplace—competitive, cutthroat, and with employees climbing over each other to reach the top— the reality is that for business leaders to experience success, they need to not just see or hear the activity around them, but also relate to the people they serve. – Forbes
Empathy is critical to effective communication. This is especially true in areas where effective communication can be the difference between profit and loss. A successful sales representative connects with the consumer to sell a product, for example, just as successful business leaders connect with their employees to inspire and encourage their best work.
A Little Background
For better or for worse, I’ve taken coursework in six languages that were not my native English, and I have been culturally immersed in three of them.
I still regularly practice several of the languages, but admittedly, not enough to retain any resemblance of fluency.
What I did retain, however, was a deep understanding of interpersonal communication.
The most engaging communication exchanges I have experienced personally, and the most successful exchanges I have experienced professionally, were ones rooted in empathy.
Empathy can appear unquantifiable. It involves what *isn’t* said.
However, there is a trick.
There are certain elements of speech that are formulaic, repetitive, and perform necessary social functions. In other words, we always say these elements, and we always say them in the same way.
These are called Speech Acts.
Speech Acts are communication devices that perform social tasks, such as a greeting, giving a compliment, or giving an apology.
Speech Acts follow patterns. When we learn to decode the patterns, we can uncover the meanings that are buried beneath the words.
Greeting is More than Hello
One such Speech Act is the greeting.
Dr. Maysa’a Kadhim Jibreen from the University of Al-Qadisiya writes in the Journal of Kerbala University: greetings are not only used to express the recognition of someone, they are used to judge the reaction and initialize their behaviors and attitudes.
In other words, not only do we say hello to inform someone else that we are greeting them, we say hello in order to make judgement based on their response. This is where the empathetic communicator takes our cue.
Empathy is to communicate “within feelings.” It makes sense that we must first ascertain what are “those feelings.”
An empathetic communicator, when culturally appropriate, greets in such a way as to invite a response.
In Socio-normative American English, this typically includes saying “Hello, how are you?” with a smile.
Greeting in that way can invite a response, and that response is one key to empathy.
Match Pitch Perfect
A key to empathy rests on this supposition: We all want to be understood.
To practice empathy, therefore, is to put yourself in the speaker’s shoes, and try to understand.
This can be described through the act of “Matching.”
If the greeting is returned softly, then likewise, return speech softly. If the greeting is returned with excitement, return the exchange with excitement as well. This is pragmatic.
If I were to ask you, “How are you?” and you were to say, with a slow, drawn out, declining pitch in your voice, “I’m fine,” I might empathetically respond, “That doesn’t sound too good. What’s up?”
On the flip side, I may ask, “How are you?” and you could reply with quick excited expression, “Great!” in which I could respond, “That sounds terrific! What’s going on?”
If the person you are speaking with retains eye contact, keep eye contact as well. If they don’t, don’t. Match their pitch perfectly.
This shows we are trying to understand where the speaker is coming from, and that we are using that extra understanding to inform how we communicate with them.
The last key to empathy is validation.
I disagree with all advice I have ever heard that an empathetic communicator repeats back as to validate what the speaker is saying.
The speaker does not need validation. What they are saying, said, expressed, or asked, is already valid. What may need validation, however, is our interpretation.
That is why we ask.
“Wow, that sounds terrific! Was it?”
“Ouch, that sounds awful! Was it?”
or, “I think what you’re saying is,…. is that what you mean?”
We do not ask the question to validate what they have said, we ask the question to validate our understanding.
Empathy is the practice of understanding the emotive expressions behind an element of communication.
To practice empathy, we examine the speech acts we are using. Because speech acts are formulaic and follow a pattern, we can use them to notice the nuances in how they are said each time.
We then work to understand those little differences, and when appropriate, match them in performance.
Then, we ask for clarification to be sure we understand correctly. We do not assume we know someone is feeling a certain way; we ask.
Communicating this way is to practice empathy.
Our aim is to be understood– but only by understanding first.
More about Dan Kleinman and his writings can be found at www.dankleinman.org