Empathy – The Soft Skill that Rules in a Hard Skills World

How Your Organization can Use Empathy as a Competitive Advantage

In a hard skills world, empathy often gets relegated as the weak, forgotten skill. To the contrary, empathy can confer a competitive advantage.  Every leader can develop empathy in themselves and their team. If you don’t think this is important, try recovering from an empathy blunder like one of these:

Once, I overheard someone talking about John, a new salesperson on our team:

“He is ‘a natural’. He could sell ice to Eskimos.”

Those were the last words I heard before John walked in and wished my amazing Jewish clients, “Merry Christmas” at their 15th Street Manhattan office.  Instead of growing our business that day, I spent our time apologizing.  It got worse…

We were going through a stressful reduction in force (RIF) in our company, and I invited a senior executive to speak to my team. He started by making a crack about someone on the team not making the meeting because they’d already been fired.

The team never trusted him again.

The decision to buy is made in the limbic part of your brain, which doesn’t respond to numbers or rational thought. Neurologist Antonio Damasio shares in his book, Descartes’ Error, that patients with injuries to the limbic part of the brain struggle not only with generating emotions but making decisions.

Ultimately, whether or not someone buys your idea or product doesn’t rely on the flashy presentation or even a rock solid ROI. It’s emotional.

Here are five practical strategies you can use today to increase your team’s empathy and reap the benefits.  They are listed from easiest to most challenging:

1. Ask employees to track their talking to listening ratio

Empathy starts with listening. However, this isn’t easy in an environment where the “squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Employees often spend most of their time either talking or mentally planning what they are going to say next. This shuts down the emotional connection.

Have your team track their speaking-to-listening ratio and flip the ratio from the majority speaking to majority listening. Ask them to note changes in the outcomes of their conversations.

2. Make a list of key phrases

Ask your team to notice the key words and phrases that others use and keep a list of them. What words do they use to describe the challenges they face? How do they articulate their goals?

Ask them to look for opportunities to use these phrases in the conversation, and then notice how their message resonates more powerfully.

3. Identify the message beyond the words

If your team is struggling to use empathy to connect with others, ask them to pay attention to nonverbal cues and what’s not being said. Listen to tone and body language. Notice what subjects they avoid.

Use these cues to decipher the mood, which is an important factor in empathy. A mentor of mine once shared: “The right conversation in the wrong mood, is the wrong conversation.”

4. Invite employees to articulate answers to a tough question

Sometimes there is too big of an emotional gap to help your team relate to others particularly if they’ve never experienced it.

Help them dig a little deeper by asking, “What do you imagine our client felt when that recent incident happened?”

5. Start with why they could be right

Challenge your team to identify reasons the other party could be right, especially when they hold opposing views.

This strategy isn’t easy, but it can yield amazing results in helping your team members connect with the other party.

Developing empathy within your team literally helps them “personalize” business. This increases employee success and productivity, and it also enhances employee engagement, resilience, and longevity.

Finally, perhaps the most powerful way to help your team develop empathy is for you to empathize with them.


P.S: Download my free report, 7 Strategies for Senior Leaders To Get the Most Out of Their Workforce

This article originally appeared in Ben Fanning’s Inc Magazine column