Back when I spent a lot of time dining out in Manhattan (long ago in a land far, far away… pre- pandemic, when dining out was a thing), I wouldn’t think twice about arriving at a restaurant and telling the greeter, “we’ll be five people instead of three.”
After being lucky enough to have the chance to spend time with restaurateurs in their world, the light bulb went on for me that such an action lacked empathetic understanding. I’ve since assisted executives to understand the tremendous benefits of embracing this skill to help teams perform at their best.
When you do what I used to do—ignore the realities of another person’s life—you can come across as both clueless and heartless, neither of which lead to strong relationships.
That busy Manhattan restaurant likely has a full slate of reservations. They don’t have multiple tables free, or you wouldn’t be eating there. Very few three-person tables fit five people. And that poor greeter has to deal with plenty of people who move through the world like I used to, with zero understanding of what it takes to honor their requests.
When I’m once again able to visit a crowded restaurant with friends (please, please, please!), I will be even more keen to demonstrate empathetic understanding and say, “I am so sorry… I know that this may be a challenging request for you – I just found out we have two more people who’d like to join us. I would be grateful if there’s a way that you could accommodate this last-minute change.”
At times I’ll still be making a difficult request, but at least I’ll be open with my appreciation for the other person going out of his or her way at that moment.
Honor the people around you
When you acquire the skill of practicing empathetic understanding, you honor the people around you. Essentially, you’re saying with your actions and words that, “I see you. I see that your life is complicated. I see that you are trying to be helpful and professional. I see that you care.”
In reality, you may not fully understand or appreciate what it is like to be them. But you can certainly demonstrate that you are trying, and that your efforts are sincere.
For example, you might shift your thinking from being annoyed by all those last-minute requests from Accounting… to being empathetic because it is now clear to you that they have to deal with so many shifting requests from people across your firm.
Or you might shift your perception of what the “job” of your company is from what you do in Marketing… to what everyone does as part of your large and highly complex organization.
Empathetic understanding is important because it leads to a shared reality across your organization: we are all part of the system…. we are all important…. we all want to be seen and appreciated…. we all have a responsibility to say what needs to be said in a manner that serves the goals of the system in which we operate.
Without empathetic understanding, there’s no empathy. You can be winning as a company and still have most employees feel crappy. Even worse, you can have sub-par performance and disgruntled team members, because no one feels heard, seen or appreciated.
With it, things shift. It’s easier and more fun to work together. You move towards being a better, more human team.
Created by Molly Tschang