These days there’s a lot of talk about empathy and its value to business.  Showing people we understand them can contribute to the bottom line, but like most things that sound pretty straightforward, there’s a catch.  Empathy isn’t always easy, and it’s pretty hard to fake.

When it comes to being the object of compassion, people aren’t dumb. They know when they’re being played, pandered to, and manipulated.  For empathy to matter, it must be real.

Some people have a natural aptitude for walking in the shoes of another.  For them, empathy comes easily. Those less inclined to be empathetic should find the “dos” and “don’ts” that follow useful.

Do Seek to Understand

When you speak with people, resist the urge to judge them or their narratives on the spot.  If you find yourself thinking, “That’s horrible,” “I would never do that,” or “What!?!”, you’ll want to reprogram your responses before giving them breath.  Instead, try “That’s different,” “That’s new to me,” or “Let me learn more about this.” 

If you slow down to understand what’s being said, you will be less likely to judge others or miss the opportunity to acknowledge and appreciate their point of view.

Do Meet a Wide Range of People

Get out of your comfort zone and meet people from other walks of life. Do you have a wide circle of acquaintances? Do you seek out people different from yourself? The more you experience, the better able you may be to understand other people and where they’re coming from.

Do Focus on Others (Real or Otherwise)

When you read, watch television, or take in a movie, pay attention not just to what happens in the plot but also to the emotions of each significant character.  The broader the range of characters you expose yourself to, the greater your capacity to consider and appreciate others’ feelings becomes.

Do Practice Reflective Listening

Practice reflective listening. This means repeating what others tell you and acknowledging their emotions before offering an opinion of your own.

For example, consider this statement: “I’m very upset that this smartphone broke four days after the warranty expired.”

If it were you who had just said that, which of the following would you want to hear? “That’s why we offer the extended warranty,” or “How frustrating! I’m sure a broken phone has put a big kink in your day.”  

Though neither response offers a solution to the problem, solutions aren’t the point of empathy.  They come later. The goal of empathy is to connect with customers, not to tell them they should have purchased a warranty.  After all, most people in situations similar to the one described know darned well they should have bought extra coverage.  They don’t need you to remind them.  What they do need is some genuine humanity.

Don’t Confuse Understanding with Agreement

You can have empathy and still disagree with someone.  Consider a political issue about which you feel strongly.  Now think about people who feel exactly the opposite.  Are you able to understand them? Can you see how they feel the way they do? If not, practice.  You don’t need to agree, but to be empathetic, you need to communicate that you understand other people’s feelings.

Don’t Get Sidetracked

Empathy has a lot to do with focus.  People know when they’re being ignored.  If you’ve ever experienced someone more interested in a television, phone, screen, or something else other than paying attention to you, you know the feeling. 

The fact is, multitasking doesn’t work as well as its name might imply.  Few of us truly accomplish two tasks at once.  Instead, we switch from one to the other. To communicate with empathy, shut down the noise and give your undivided attention to others.  Two minutes of focus is worth two hours filled with distraction.

Don’t Include Yourself in the Equation

In an attempt to connect with others, some of us find ourselves in the “me too” trap.  For instance, let’s revisit the phone example offered earlier. A customer has just said, “I’m very upset that this smartphone broke four days after the warranty expired.”

If you were that customer, how would the following strike you? “I hear you. The same thing happened to me.  I was so angry.”

Wait a minute salesclerk! This is about me not you.  I don’t care about your phone.  I want to be understood and have my feelings acknowledged.

When attempting to be empathetic, save your stories for another day, and don’t hijack the conversation.

Empathy can be hard work.  Projecting it genuinely and proficiently requires practice.  If you’re empathetic by nature, then good for you; nothing in this piece is news.  But if you aren’t, give the seven “Dos” and “Don’ts” a try.  With a bit of patience, practice, and perspiration you’ll be on your way to building stronger relationships with others.