Is Empathy the Next Growth Hack?

Updated: 29 Feb, 2016 | Dan O'Brien

Broadly defined, empathy is being able to understand someone’s perspective—not just understand it, but to be able to put yourself into their shoes and experience what they are feeling. Adam Grant, an award-winning researcher and Wharton’s highest-rated professor, talks a lot about being a giver as opposed to a taker in order to achieve greater success. Empathy falls along the same spectrum of adopting prosocial behaviors in order to pursue business growth strategies. 

Empathy is often the secret sauce of successful personal and business relationships. Being able to adopt another’s point of view creates meaningful dialogue, regardless of the topic. There has been considerable research on mirror neurons and brain injuries associated with parts of the brain that govern emotional reasoning. The very first things impacted are emotional learning and reasoning, which plays into their influence on maintaining relationships.

So what?

Empathy is the social currency that buoys trust, authenticity, need, and the desire to socialize with others. Without it, we become cave-dwellers and isolationists. Drawing a parallel here to business should not feel like too much of an intuitive leap. Understanding how to interact with people informs our ability to be successful in those relationships, whether it is a partner, a client, or a stranger.

Imagine you have a cold lead you haven’t followed up with for months. You’ve practiced your lead management best practices by organizing your inbox, implementing your CRM networking, and now you are ready to supercharge that sales pipeline once more. With a renewed sense of motivation, you dial up the lead and get their voicemail. A somber voice informs you that they are no longer with the company, and as such is no longer the point of contact for a particular sale.

What do you do?

The neutral option would be to move on to the next number on your call list for the day. The empathetic thing to do would be to imagine what a kind word or a personal message could do for this person’s day. If you never follow up with this person again, the interaction was a zero-sum endeavor. Let’s say, however, you remember that you connected with this business contact on Facebook once upon a time. You hop over to your account and bring up his profile. Well, it looks like he hasn’t updated his voicemail since getting a new position at a new company. Maybe this overlooked cold lead could turn into a new referral base simply by adopting a more empathetic approach.

Adam Grant is right: giving to others enriches every aspect of the human experience. In the above scenario, you were able to brighten someone’s day, and possibly get a new client and access to a larger referral network.

Hypotheticals aside, there is a fair amount of research that links empathetic behaviors to increased sales, better performance for managers, and heightened employee satisfaction when the management style leans toward empathy. When you extend this to the efficacy of teams and team-oriented goals, the role of empathy cannot be overlooked in employee advocacy. Working together means understanding how everyone in the group sees the goal, and the path to the goal. Empathy is the source code for intergroup cohesion and a great way to grow your business.

Engaging in empathy (as opposed to sympathy or neutrality) allows you as a manager, salesperson, or professional to meaningfully impact a client's or employee’s life by not only listening to what they are saying, but imagining the world from their perspective. This allows you to deliver something that is authentic and (often) less expensive than the generic approach of trying to anticipate, as opposed to understand, the needs of others. You might want to give away a vacation or a weekend in wine country, when all they really want is something much more personal.

Maybe you see the value, maybe you don’t. However, here are a few ways you can integrate empathy into your daily life in order to use it as the growth hack it can be:

Pay attention to the nonverbals. The majority of human interaction takes place on the nonverbal level; what people really think is written on their face, in their posture, and in their idiosyncrasies. Often, people will try to mask their nonverbal communications, but they bleed through regardless of effort, especially when they do not feel like they have to be guarded. Engaging someone with empathy creates an environment in which nonverbal communication becomes more clear; all you need to do is pay attention. Do they seem distracted? Are they rushing through the call or meeting? Learning to tune into these behaviors can pay dividends in terms of finding out what people need. 

Encourage, recognize, and reward. Encourage everyone, even the people who do not seem like they require it. Some people will need more than others. By seeing them as more than one interaction, you will see what they need. Often, you will need to read between the lines in order to see what people want. The only kind of reward that matters is one that is both salient and meaningful. Even on a sales call or a lead interaction, be encouraging in the conversation, recognize what the person really needs, and then reward them for their investment.

Be present and minimize interruptions. Being empathetic means allowing people to have their moment; being distracted or needlessly interrupting them is like tearing a page out of the book they are reading. You can check your emails later or listen to that voicemail once the conversation is over. Imagine you were trying to convey something important to someone and they kept looking at the clock or people-watching instead of focusing on what mattered. Being empathetic is about the other person, so check the ego and interact authentically.

Activate active listening. Not to put too fine a point on it, but shutting up and listening is difficult for most people to do. Don’t just hear the words, listen for the intent. Going straight to your sales script when you hear a trigger word only succeeds in developing communication distance. Tone, body language, and how they are talking about something will provide all the information that you need. All you have to do is really listen to them.

Play the name game, be involved, and smile. Learning the names of the people who matter to you should be a priority; it shows that you have taken a personal interest in their lives. Asking questions to learn more about their goals and hobbies will allow you to more accurately interact with them in the future. You will know how to reward them, and how to reach out to them when you want to network. Becoming adept at using empathy for personal and professional growth is about consistency and repetition over time. Smile, ask questions about who they are on a personal level, and don’t forget to use their name.

Empathy might be the next big thing in management and sales. It can offer real insight into how to nurture relationships. However, it is important for being a part of the world. Introducing a little more empathy into your life will yield positive results, if you are willing to put in the hard work.

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