Four Strategies for Increasing Empathy

Recently, I was asked the question, how can we increase the use of empathy? It is exciting to see the growing interest in developing empathy. It seems empathy is finally being recognized for the important role it plays in our social and organizational interactions. Empathy is a foundational principle of Design Thinking. Without empathy, it is impossible to create meaningful solutions that alleviate pain points.

Empathy is a concept that has been studied for over half a century – at least this is as far back as I’ve looked. The body of knowledge on empathy shows that this is an innate human capacity that can be developed further to increase our ability to understand the world through the perspectives of others. The question remains if we know empathy can be developed, how do we do it? Here are four strategies I have used with clients:

1. The first step to building your empathy is to strengthen your listening skills. Most of the time we listen to respond. Most of us are guilty of formulating what we will say while the other person is speaking. Empathy requires listening to understand – how does the other person see this situation? How is the other person feeling? What are their points of view? This type of listening takes mindful practice to develop. So the next time someone is speaking to you try the following:

• Set aside distractions like your smartphone
• Look at the person who is speaking, if the conversation is over the phone, trying closing your eyes and focusing on the voice
• Before responding, reframe what the person has said to ensure you’ve heard their message appropriately
• Then craft your response

2. Role-playing exercises are a fun way to get teams thinking about empathy. I often do this exercise with clients. Present a situation and ask each person in the group to respond from the point of view of someone else. For example, if you are a 40-year-old woman, respond to the situation as if you were a 12-year-old boy, a 60-year-old man, or even an inanimate object. At first, these exercises feel a bit silly however these exercises are powerful in highlighting the limited lens through which each of us sees the world.

3. While the above exercise is playful, it does have some practical implications. Try the same exercise but this time look at a product or service you offer through the eyes of your customers or from your competitors’ viewpoint. Empathy maps are an excellent tool for doing this exercise. Check out smaply.com for templates that help facilitate this process.

4. There is no quick fix for developing empathy. It requires daily mindful practice. So, before every conversation and before typing up that response, STOP! Then ask yourself, am I seeing this situation from their perspective? Do I really understand what they are telling me? Some of my clients have written these questions on post-it notes that they keep on their desk, so they have a constant reminder.

Increasing our empathy capabilities require practice, patience, and effort but, the rewards are well worth it!

Have you used any of these strategies? What might you add to this list?

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