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Can we learn to have more empathy?

Consultancy 10th June 2021

Today (10 June) is Empathy Day. Schools up and down the UK are running activities around what empathy is, why we need to be able to listen and understand each other’s experience and perspective.

Books and reading are being used as the model of ‘stepping into someone else’s shoes’, encouraging young people to think about how other people feel and what that means for them, how they might change their own behaviour.

All the science backs up the value of this idea. Because empathy is a skill that can be learnt and developed at any age. It’s also a skill we increasingly need. The organisers behind Empathy Day point to a ‘major empathy deficit’ in UK society, demonstrated by rising levels of hate crimes and, in particular, the use of social media as a channel to criticise, denigrate and abuse other people without any consideration of the impact.

We’re individualistic to a fault: encouraged to put ourselves first, to believe in ourselves and nurture our self-image, to make sure we have ‘me-time’ – none of which is conducive to understanding and appreciating how other people might see the world differently.

If there’s one area of our lives where empathy is essential it’s when we’re at work. We’re put into teams, large or small, filled with people with different personalities, experience and backgrounds. The level of technical skill we have is unimportant if we can’t actually work together. The real strength of any organisation is not individuals but how we combine, how we complement each other with the different qualities we have.

Again, empathy can be learnt. In CMP’s work with employers, we focus on developing Conversational Integrity (CI) as a broader package of skills that includes empathy as a central element.

CI is needed to build an awareness of the role of conversations in relationships, how the quality of conversations changes dynamics, and the huge influence they have on the outcome of situations, particularly those most difficult of conversations where we’re most likely to want to rush to the easiest conclusions. Core skills include empathy alongside ‘situational awareness’, the essential practice of ‘curiosity’, ‘reflective listening’ and ‘self awareness’ – so not just listening outwardly but inwardly, how your own ‘inner state’ is impacting on the flow of the conversation.

CI makes for smooth and positive interaction among managers and co-workers, a platform for good performance at work, for avoiding conflict. But not so there’s a mono-culture of people with all the same attitudes and behaviours. People who challenge conventions, who might clash with others, are an important and healthy part of a workplace as a source of new insights and change. Having CI in the organisation just means those kinds of difficult conversations take place in a constructive, grown-up way, and always in the context of a mutual empathy.