How more empathy will improve your communication

Communicating with empathy

Photo credit: Clay Banks

Different perspectives can lead to productive conversations and new ideas. In order to see them, we need to communicate. But good communication requires us to not only understand the other party’s reasoning, but also their emotions. In other words: we need empathy.

To be more empathetic may seem like a moral ambition, but it can also be a practical virtue, especially in international business. We all have our own agenda, but we rely on the cooperation of others to reach our goals. If you have been on the receiving end of someone just barking commands, you will likely agree that this is not the way to encourage collaboration. If we want others to work with us, we need to know what motivates them, what their goals and values are.

So, ask yourself: What makes the other person feel valued? What motivates them? And what could offend them?

The old saying that goes, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” is still true today. If you can make business partners and co-workers feel valued and understand what makes them feel good about their work, they will be cooperative, productive and happy to work with you in the future.

We like to think that we are rational beings, but when it comes time to decide or take action, rationality is no match for our emotions. If you can figure out what drives the different stakeholders in any business situation, you will make better decisions and likely not only benefit yourself but everyone involved.

If you understand what motivates your team, you will be a better leader.

If you understand your customer’s needs, you will create more value.

If you understand your colleague, you can give better feedback.

Empathy allows us to have a better idea of how the other person might act and how our words and actions are perceived. Accommodating other’s needs and preferences will make it easier for your message to be heard and it acknowledges that they are also busy and have their own challenges.

And this is what empathy is really about; realising that your views and problems are no more or less valid that anyone else’s. So how can we start being more empathetic?

Creating empathy

Understanding another person’s emotions might sound like we’re about to delve into psychoanalysis, but getting started is much simpler than that.

Ask questions

It might sound obvious, but asking the right questions is an underutilised skill. Given some practice, everyone can learn to ask better questions and gain more understanding. This applies to small talk which might give you some background on the person, as well as to more pragmatic questions like “How can I help you with that project?”

Listen

It can be difficult to hold back on your own solutions and advice, but encouraging the other person to express their thoughts by being an active listener is essential to creating empathy and complementary to asking the right questions. Make sure to pay attention to non-verbal cues and give feedback on how you understood what has been said.

Intercultural awareness

A person’s cultural background will influence the way they communicate and think. By being aware of customs and cultural norms you will not only avoid embarrassing blunders, but also have a better idea of how direct you can be or how committed the other party is to an agreement. Displaying some knowledge of the other’s language and tradition is also a sign of respect that will instantly win their favour.

Roleplay as a defendant

The advice often given to promote understanding is to “put yourself in their shoes”. However, this may require information or imagination we do not have. Instead, try to make their case as best you can. Pretend to be on their team and draw up the best possible defence against an imaginary third party. This will force you to put your own agenda aside and also take a more critical view of your own position.

Use common experiences

Possibly the best way to tap into someone else’s emotional state is to dig into one’s own memory and experiences. Was there a time when you were facing a new challenge? What was a situation where you were under a lot of pressure? How did that make you feel and what helped you overcome adversity?

Our understanding of others grows when we can relate on a personal level. We may not always be able to think of a relevant experience, but as we practise this tactic it will get easier to see connections.

Start practising empathy today

Using empathy to improve your communication is a skill and all skills take practice. Start today by choosing one person who you interact with frequently and ask yourself: how well do you understand this person?

If you want to kick-start this process for your whole team, why not try our Cross-Cultural Simulation? It is never too soon to work on better communication!

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Robert Rothe
Marketing and Partner Manager

Robert grew up in Hamburg, but has strong South African roots. At EnglishBusiness he is the German translation editor, manages our pool of external translators and creates our marketing content. In his free time you’ll find him running around the Alster. In this blog he writes about the German language, South Africa, sports and our beautiful port city.

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