Empathy is a term well known to us business analysts and one which is sometimes regarded with suspicion. After all “being aware of and sharing another person's feelings, experiences, and emotions” (http://www.wordcentral.com/cgi-bin/student?book=Student&va=empathy) does sound a bit eerie I suppose.
I think one of the issues with empathy, and emotional competence in general, is that it can be a bit elusive, as it’s all about sensing or feeling emotions and thoughts of another person. There are many workshops and books for people who want to intensify their emotional competence, but it requires as much emotional involvement as it requires brain power.
So, is there a simple way to be empathic? It’s a difficult question to answer, but I firmly believe that empathy can be triggered if we are genuinely interested in other people. Because when you are interested in them, what they think, say and feel matters to you. If it matters to you, you will automatically become engaged with them and their issues and expectations.
I once worked for a business owner I would nowadays say is an empathy genius. He was the owner of a company which made big business all over Switzerland, and he was immensely successful with anything he put his mind to. A few months ago, he retried, and I went to wish him well and ask him about his plans for retirement. I hadn’t seen him for quite a few years, but in his presence, it struck me how quickly he connected with me and how comfortable he made me feel talking to him. And it was just as I remembered him dealing with people he had never seen before, like potential customers who just walked in to our show room.
But what is it that makes him so successful, and how does he manage to build up such a good connection between himself and the people around him? I firmly believe that the most important factor is that he simply has this genuine interest in people. He is a highly professional business owner, but at the same time, he always treats everyone on a personal level. What people think, say or feel, really matters to him. And it makes no difference whether they are customers, employees or colleagues (even his dog got its fair share of care and attention at work).
I worked for him for 2 years, and I learnt a lot about sales and customer service. But the most important lesson was that if you want to be successful in a business which is all about people, those people must feel that you care for them, trying to understand their current situation and therefore understand their actions (faking it won’t work by the way, as people sense very quickly if your interest is genuine or not).
Maybe showing empathy can be a bit daunting to some business analysts, and especially in the context of their profession, may even seem unprofessional, too sentimental and inappropriate. But to care about someone’s interests and the situation they find themselves in doesn’t automatically imply a sense of sentimental and personal attachment. Even in a business context, caring for someone else can be applied just as professional as anything else. And, if we genuinely care for our stakeholder’s interests, we most likely use our inbuilt empathy notions without realising it.
In my experience, showing empathy for my stakeholders by letting them know that their thoughts, worries and interests matter to me rolls out the red carpet for respect, trust and team work, without it costing me or them a penny. It means that I can rely on my stakeholders to pull through and cooperate with me, even if things go wrong. For them, it means they can trust me to do the best I can to get them the best deal.
As business analysts, we can’t save the world. We also can’t make everything perfect for our stakeholders. But what we can do is show our empathy for them, simply by showing them that we care. Because after all, business analysis is all about people.