Welcome to our second installment of a 3-part series on empathy in business. Last time, we talked about why Mind Over Machines uses empathy and you should too. Now, it’s time to get tactical. I promised easy-to-implement tips for putting empathy to work growing your business. This post delivers 11 techniques for practicing empathy. They are all in bold so they’re easy to spot.
Remember, contrary to popular, long-held belief, empathy is not a soft skill. It isn’t amorphous or innate. Empathy is a hard skill, and that means it can be learned and practiced. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.
Internal Empathy: Start at Home
As we illustrated in Part 1, empathetic leaders increase employee engagement and creativity. Your team knows empathy improves the work experience, so they will be happy to help you practice it.
“Empathy is a hard skill, and that means it can be learned and practiced. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.”
Learn and grow empathy together via a companywide professional development initiative. You’ll see the investment pay off when your increasingly empathic employees turn their new superpower outward to interact with the people your business serves.
Empathy starts with observation. Have a new employee you want to get to know better? Next time you’re in their workspace for a meeting, make a point to look around. Take it all in. What do you see, and what does it tell you about what they value and how they work? Do you see piles of paper or Post-its artfully arranged? Maybe it’s a neat and tidy, blank canvas. What do you notice, and what does it make you wonder? Observation provides plenty of raw data you can use to formulate open-ended, nonjudgmental questions. It’s the beginning of empathy.
I’m part of the Innovation Team here at MOM. In our weekly meetings, Chief Innovation Officer Tim Kulp often does energy checks. Energy checks are a quick and easy way to get real about life’s messiness. They help you see beyond work personas to the full humans sitting around the table (real or virtual) with you. Basically, you’re asking, “How much energy do you have for work this week?” Maybe someone is packing up their apartment for a weekend move. Someone else has a sick kid or a mom going in for surgery. Everybody else has the bandwidth to cover for them, knowing the favor will be returned when they need it. People feel seen and supported. There is trust and accountability. You’re building a cohesive team.
Client-Focused Empathy: Getting to Know You
MOM Senior Advisor Tim Alvarez has been refining our account management strategy since he joined the team in June. He’s a great source of guidance when you’re ready to take your new empathic ways out into the world. When Tim talks with prospective partners, he asks a lot of questions. All those questions never get annoying though because he makes one thing clear: We ask because we care.
What keeps you up at night? This is one of Tim’s favorite open-ended questions to ask because it gets to the heart of the problem your prospective client needs solved. It illuminates the worst pain point and helps you understand how it’s impacting business, morale, and mental health. From there, you can continue to build empathy with follow-up questions like: How have you tried to solve the problem? What results did you get? How would this work in your perfect world? You are learning where your potential customer has been, where they want to go, and how they feel about all of it.
Once you have a handle on the problems being described, Tim recommends the Feel, Felt, Found Method, which accomplishes 3 things:
1. It assures the person that you’ve heard and understand how they are feeling and what they’re dealing with. (That’s the second half of the empathy definition, remember?)
2. It comforts them to know others have felt that way too. They are not alone.
3. You begin the process of leading by listening. “I hear how you feel. I’ve felt that way too, and I’ve found these steps lead to the best outcomes…”
No matter what course of action you and your new partner agree upon, do what you say you are going to do. Following up is essential because it builds trust. It also shows everyone involved that the project is making progress. You are gaining ground, solving the problem, working to alleviate the pain.
Building Relationships and Trust
When a prospective client becomes a partner, MOM starts working the 4 phases of Workforce Ascension℠ & Enhancement (WAE). We use a stable of exercises to help us move with empathy from exploration through scope and execution to verifying the achieved solution. Here are a few you can try to build your empathy muscle:
Change Your Perspective: Don’t assume you know how your customer feels or what they’re going through. Do what you need to do to see the world through their eyes. I recently took a course that gave the example of walking through a toy store on your knees to understand how a kid experiences it. Never be afraid to get literal about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes or light-up sneakers.
Check Your Expertise: We often talk about your core competency, the thing your company does better than anybody else. Imagine if you didn’t have it. That’s how your client feels. I’ll use MOM as an example of how this exercise works: Our solution architects have developer brains. That means they have a unique way of looking at the world and the technology available. Few people can do what they do. When developers need to empathize with the plight of end users, they check their expertise at the door so they can open up to how their clients are feeling.
Empathy Mapping: As a visual person, this is one of my favorites. A typical empathy map has 4 quadrants. It allows you to see what a customer (or type of customer/persona) says, thinks, does, and feels all in one view. Empathy maps are a great tool for assembling and visualizing the swirling mass of contradictions most of us humans carry on daily. Having a complete picture of the people you are trying to serve always results in better products and solutions.
Discovery: A WAE Case Study
Client case studies have a way of making the theoretical concrete. Let me show you how one of our senior consultants and I recently used empathy exercises to design a Power Platform app that automated the way data updated and flowed through a client’s entire operation. We started with process mapping. You might not think process documentation is empathetic, but it is the way we do it! It starts with observing the process owner run the process multiple times. Then, we get to ask the owner all kinds of questions. Finally, they may even let us jump into their shoes and run the process ourselves so we can really understand the experience.
When we had questions about why things were done a certain way, we used the 5 Whys, a Socratic method for working backward to uncover the root cause of a problem. Finally, we conducted a little skills inventory of the users involved in the process. By documenting who did what and the skills they employed to complete their parts of the process, we ensured we were designing a new solution users would feel comfortable adopting because it played to their strengths.
The client expressed huge appreciation for these discovery tactics that helped us truly understand who they were and what they needed. Our WAE exercises revealed the whole story needed to design the best solution, not just the obvious, surface info they knew was important to offer up at our kick-off meeting.
Next Up: A Hands-On Empathy Exercise
And just like that, you now have 11 different techniques for practicing empathy with your employees, prospective clients, and current customers. Everything from just walking into a room and looking around to visually representing people’s thoughts and actions. Don’t worry; I’m going to give you some time to play with these.
I’ll be back soon to walk you step-by-step through an exercise designed to build empathy for and among your whole team. Not only will it allow you to see each other’s contributions in a new light, it will also help you communicate your company’s value proposition in a radically different way. You are going to develop an immersive storytelling experience that will draw new customers in and get them excited about who you are, what you do, and why you do it that way.
Tally Aumiller is Baltimore born and raised. Her dad was a logical lawyer; her mom a hypercreative teacher. She and her two sisters merged those personality types for the best of both worlds. Tally channels her analytical thinking and creative problem-solving into the many and varied communities she serves.
“Growth mindset” isn’t buzzy jargon for Tally; it’s a way of life. She loves to learn and even created her own major, Social Marketing & Design, at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Since then, Tally has managed wealth and assets, tech implementations, and now, innovation. She brings ideas, people and processes together to make meaning and create solutions.
She’s currently putting her collaborative empath powers to work in Denver, where the influx of sun and nature have spiked her creativity levels. Tally is surrounded by young, remote-working transplants who are hungry for in-person socialization and networking opportunities. She’s feeling compelled to meet that need by creating a new affinity group. If you’re in the same Denver-based boat and have ideas, reach out and connect.