Read and listen to previous parts of the series:
- Introduction: The 7 Skills of a Successful Careerist
- 1. Organization
- 2. Communication
- 3. Troubleshooting
Empathy is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as, “The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another”. This can sound a bit confusing and academic, so I often think about empathy in this way. Empathy is imagining how you might feel were you placed in the position, given the same experiences and basically, lived the life of someone else.
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We all have some empathetic ability, even if we subsume it under the needs of business, career and life. Too often, we ignore our empathetic feelings towards others and convince ourselves that it really isn’t important how another person feels, as long as you are accomplishing your goals. Unfortunately, it is thinking like this that makes the world a more difficult and unpleasant place to live sometimes. Instead of understanding, empathetically, the feelings of others, we try to “win” at the expense of others instead of trying to build situations where everyone wins.
Instead of this hard-nosed tactic towards life, I believe that empathy is one of the 7 Skills of a Successful Careerist. Through empathy, we can ease our own path — and the path of others — develop deep, meaningful relationships — in both life and work — and help ourselves by helping those around us. Sure, bullish, brutish methods can generate success, too, but I believe that the costs involved in those methods — the enemies and enmity created, the damage to the lives of others and the general dehumanization of others — can leave even the most successful person feeling empty, lost and unhappy.
Empathy is especially important when working with others, either as co-workers, customers or clients. Understanding the wants, needs and desires of your customer and clients — and serving them — is the defining factor of many successful businesses. It quickly and easily differentiates them from other companies with less empathetic methods and gives them great, competitive advantage in both the short and long term. Companies that seek to win, no matter how badly their customers lose, will find their customers abandoning them as soon as a better competitor comes along.
It is almost impossible for companies to act in empathetic ways towards their customers if their management and their employees are not also empathetic in their own relationships with one-another. Problems within a business often quickly become problems with customers and clients. Faced with a “dog-eat-dog” environment in the office, you can’t expect employees to treat customers any differently. They are conditioned to think of themselves first, and will do so at every opportunity. When trying to develop better relationships with your clients and customers, you first need to look to your own behaviors and policies to insure that you aren’t doing to your employees what they are doing to your customers.
As someone who has worked in customer service and support for 30 years, I learned early on that empathy for the client was an important, if not required, aspect of a successful career. I have been been told over the years that I am quite different from the “typical computer support person”, whatever that is. For me, I directly credit this to my sense of empathy with clients, whether they are young or old, tech-savvy or newbie. My methods weren’t created theoretically, but rather discovered through long experience. I found that, in order to be an effective consultant, I often had to remember what it was like to not know something. I had to remember and understand the fear, frustration and failure that went into learning about technology, in all its forms. This empathy allowed me to be patient, methodical and creative in my training and troubleshooting, never making anyone feel stupid — as I clearly remembered how it felt when someone had done to me in the past. This is where I think many teachers, trainers and customer support people fail. They no longer remember what it feels like to not know something and simply consider their customers stupid, capricious or mean. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Take pains to remember how you feel in specific situations and you will clearly know what your co-workers, customers and clients are feeling. You will be able to empathize with their challenges and successes and be much less likely to treat them as impediments to your own goals. No one lives in isolation and you either seek to understand those around you with empathy or, instead, see each day as a constant battle against nameless, faceless “others”. Even worse, people will come to treat you in exactly the same way. Discover your empathy and it will ease everyone’s path through life, work and career.