Empathy – what is it and why is it important in business?
“Empathy is a special way of coming to know another and ourselves, a kind of attuning and understanding. When empathy is extended, it satisfies our needs and wishes for intimacy, it rescues us from our feelings of aloneness.” – Carl Rogers
Shoji Morimoto became famous around the world earlier this year as ‘the Japanese man paid to do nothing’. Behind the attention-grabbing headlines was a story steeped in empathy.
Morimoto is known as ‘Rental-san’ because he can be hired by strangers to be a warm body, keeping them company at lunches, waiting at the end of marathons and even attending doctors’ appointments.
Of course, this says a lot about loneliness and disconnection in society that these people need to hire a stranger to be there for them, but Morimoto’s work is more than just the sign of a quirky entrepreneurial spirit. He shows great empathy towards his clients, unsurprising as he is with them at some of their most important and vulnerable moments.
“I think when people are feeling vulnerable or are in their intimate moments, they become more sensitive toward people that are close to them, like how they will be perceived, or the kind of actions they will take for them,” he said. “So I think they want to just reach out to a stranger without any strings attached.
“Even if people look normal and fine on the surface, they often have shocking pasts or secrets, or impossible problems. People who come to me with crazy problems, they’re usually not people who look like they’re suffering. Everyone, even the ones that seem well, all have their own sets of problems and secrets.”
Empathy in business
We’ve often been told that the world of business is cut-throat, that feelings are for wimps and the best way to succeed is to trample the competition underfoot. From Michael Douglas in Wall Street to Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, we’ve been shown business leaders who take no prisoners and don’t care what damage they do on their path to success.
But those films and the attitudes they portray are from the past. Businesses are realising the power of soft skills like empathy and emotional intelligence. A survey of UK businesses commissioned by McDonald’s found that 97% saw soft skills as key to business growth or success.
Studies have shown that we are better managers when we can empathise with staff and better workers when we can empathise with our customers. Empathy – just like lunch – isn’t just for wimps.
At our Social HQ in Manchester, one of the most important words written on our walls is EMPATHY. It’s one of our behaviours that we’re all expected to show in our interactions with colleagues and clients alike and an essential part of our Life Happens ethos. And it genuinely is more than just words here, Social is the most empathetic employer I’ve ever had, from top to bottom.
But how does that happen?
Developing – and practicing – empathy
Empathy should be something that just happens, but it takes work. We all have our own stresses, our own biases, our own prejudices built up from our experiences. These get in the way of our empathy, especially when we’re tired, but even at our best we can find ourselves falling short.
As well as working as a Senior Content Writer here at Social, I’m also studying Counselling at college in my spare time and work as a Mental Health First Aider here. In my studies I’ve learned a lot about Carl Rogers, one of the founders of the humanistic (or ‘person-centred’) approach to therapy.
Much like empathy is a key behaviour in this company, it’s also one of the ‘core conditions’ that Rogers identified as being essential for any kind of helping relationship to be effective, along with unconditional positive regard for the client and congruence.
In counselling, empathy means being able to put yourself in the position of your client to understand their situation and their feelings about it. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Anyone can sympathise with someone who is going through a difficult experience, but empathising means truly understanding their inner world.
Rogers defined it as: “It’s saying this, ‘I’m trying to be a companion to you in your search and your exploration. I want to know, am I with you? Is this the way it seems to you? Is this the thing you’re trying to express? Is this the meaning it has for you?’ So in a sense I’m saying, ‘I’m walking with you step by step, and I want to make sure I am with you. Am I with you?’ So that’s a little bit of my understanding about empathy.”
It’s easy to see how important this can be for a counsellor trying to help their client, but it’s just as important in business. Truly understanding a customer or business client takes this kind of work too and the benefits can include a greater chance of not only doing what they have asked but also knowing what they need before they maybe even realise it.
Being empathetic means having a better understanding of people and this can only be achieved by being curious about them and learning how to read them. This has taken a literal meaning in Denmark, where a Human Library was established in 2000, publishing people’s stories and experiences for the rest of us to learn from.
It’s not a library of books, it’s one of people, where volunteers can agree to be ‘read’ by visitors, talking and answering questions about themselves. The topics cover illnesses, mental health conditions, experiences and anything else about the human condition. The Human Library’s slogan is ‘unjudge someone’ because it’s all about tackling our prejudices and getting to know the real person behind their condition or story.
The concept of the Human Library has already spread to 80 countries and there’s a lot we can all learn from taking the time to properly discover about each other behind our assumptions and misconceptions. That’s what empathy is all about.
As part of my college course, I’m undertaking counselling placements, working with real clients and my assumptions about my own empathy have been tested in ways I didn’t expect. I’ve found myself having to actively challenge my preconceptions and my own assumptions about how automatically I would be able to put myself in my clients’ shoes. It doesn’t always just happen, it takes work, which has been a lesson for me and one we can all learn from.
Empathy is something we all need to keep working on, keep challenging ourselves. It’s not easy in these divided times when the media and people on social media like to divide us up, pit us against each other and dehumanise sections of society. Empathy really can change the world for the better.