Communications with employees and customers are frequently guided by the desire to convey the message as quickly as possible so that the manager or service provider may move on to the next task or customer. This drive for efficient, productive communications overlooks a basic tenet of human interaction—empathy. The ability to place oneself “in the shoes of another” is more than a warm and fuzzy idiom. Empathy serves a vital role in communications by blocking unfair assumptions and opening the door to productive contributions.
When someone demonstrates empathy toward us, we sense that they care. That caring makes us feel acknowledged and part of an effort to create value from the interaction. Two participants in a conversation are more likely to feel like equal contributors toward a larger solution or agreement if both participants feel respected and understood.
In a workplace stressing personal accountability, responsibility and achievement, where do we see the value of shifting focus away from ourselves and toward the person with whom we are interacting? The benefits can be described more specifically than a general improvement of relationships with customers and employees.
Better Customer Service. Customers typically include empathy on their lists of ideal customer service characteristics. Customer service providers who are able to understand customer needs or concerns from the perspective of their customers are better suited to address those needs and solve those problems. Even if a customer’s concerns can’t be entirely resolved, an understanding tone of voice and demeanor can soothe frustrations and result in a customer willing to return to buy again. Empathetic customer service is an integral part of customer-centric organizations.
Stronger Company Culture. Most effective companies emphasize collaboration and co-creation, which break down the barriers between organizational levels and departments. According to Forbes contributing writer Jayson M. Boyers, “to develop an effective workforce, we must be willing to compromise and meet people where they are.” By meeting people “where they are,” managers demonstrate empathy toward their employees and include multiple perspectives in the decision-making process. In addition to better decisions and more efficient operations, empathetic management results in greater employee job satisfaction. Employees who believe their voices are heard and their opinions considered are more likely to value their role in the fortunes of the company.
Effective Business Communications. To understand the benefits of empathic communications, we should first think of ourselves as the receivers of a message. We can probably recall reading or hearing a message delivered in a condescending, forceful, blunt, insensitive or overly direct manner. The sender of the message (spoken or written) may not have intended for us to feel that way, and yet we do. Allowing for unintended consequences does not absolve truly insensitive behavior. Instead, the possibility that our negative feelings are more the result of the words chosen and manner of delivery, and less the creation of a thoughtless communicator, encourages us all to consciously incorporate empathy in our writing and speaking processes. We must pay attention to the verbal and nonverbal clues we give. Our tone of voice, word choices and body language serve as clues to our true feelings and create the context from which the recipient of our written or spoken message will form their response.
Our social competence is measured in large part by our capacity for empathy. If we truly believe in the value of others and understand that working together offers greater collective rewards than we can achieve individually, then we must dedicate ourselves to spending less time focused on ourselves and more time comprehending the feelings and thoughts of our customers and employees.
Michael Hansen is a professor of business at COCC with a background in marketing and communications. You can reach him at 541-383-7710.