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The Value of Empathy in Collaborative Relationships

the value of empathy – Is it an Essential Quality of Collaboration?

The eagle team recognise the high value of empathy in building and maintaining collaborative relationships. As some of you might know, we at Eagle Training have had a collaborative relationship with Advance Consultancy Ltd for over 20 years, working together to build high-performing teams on infrastructure projects; including Crossrail and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

Led by Norman Kerfoot, the Advance team has believed for many years that there was a need for a specialised collaborative instrument to help clients and their projects succeed. Their research, in a joint venture with major academic institutions, and confirmed by their clients’ practical experience, suggested that successful collaboration combines two elements; relational (cooperation) and task (coordination).

The result of this collaboration was the development of the first psychometric tool, Suitability© to Collaborate (StC), which specifically assess an individual’s and a team’s propensity to work together. The StC focuses on seven key elements that fall under either cooperation or coordination.

Value of Empathy in Collaborative Relationships

What is Empathy?

The third element of the seven is empathy, a much used (and maybe abused) term in today’s business world and I thought this week I would explore the subject and its relevance to collaboration.
So what, exactly, is empathy? Well, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, empathy is:

 

“the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this”.

 

Thinking about it, maybe empathy can be broken into two main parts. The first is actually feeling the way someone else feels in a given situation, and then understanding how they feel. In other words, empathy is made up of being able to put yourself in someone else’s position both intellectually and emotionally. The value of empathy is clear when this is considered.

Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, puts it perhaps more simply as being basically the ability to understand others’ emotions. Please note that having empathy for someone does not necessarily mean that you will want to, or be able to, help them in their situation.
It is possible to identify different types of empathy; the names differ depending on which article or report you read. I like the ones that I found on Skills You Need which lists three as being:

The Three Types of Empathy

Cognitive empathy

Being able to put yourself into someone else’s place and to see their perspective. This is a useful skill for those in leadership roles in the world of business and management as it enables you to put yourself in their shoes while remaining objective; although this can come across as a bit uncaring.

Emotional empathy

As the name implies, you can genuinely feel the other person’s emotions.

Compassionate empathy

What most people perhaps understand by the term. This type of empathy is a feeling of concern for someone else, but also a motivation to want to help them.

It is important to find the right balance between the three types of empathy because cognitive empathy can appear to be under-emotional. By contrast, emotional empathy can be over-emotional. So, maybe compassionate empathy might offer an appropriate balance between using logic and emotion. At this level, the true value of empathy can be seen.

All of which brings me back to the Suitability© to Collaborate (StC) I mentioned above and, specifically how empathy can enhance collaboration in business relationships.

In order to do this, the StC highlighted 3 levels of empathy in the context of collaboration.

The STC’s 3 Levels of Empathy

Low

Someone with a low level of empathy tends to be an outspoken individual who focuses primarily on the achievement of the task at hand. They rarely take time to encourage people to express their thoughts and feelings and may even feel impatient with those that do. Colleagues would be unlikely to describe them as a good listener and may often feel that their perspective is not being considered. A person with low levels of empathy rarely considers the impact of their actions on others and may be surprised by their reaction.

For these folks, a suggested development task is to recognise when and where a more consultative approach would be beneficial. They might also need to develop the skills of active listening, asking high quality clarifying, and confirming questions, and then summarising what they believe they have heard.

Moderate

Someone with a moderate level of empathy appreciates the importance of taking time to really listen and consider the thoughts and feelings of stakeholders. They are likely to have reasonably good listening skills and are aware of the impact that their actions will have on others. They can encourage others to contribute, although they may not choose to do so. However, when they feel under pressure, they may tend to pay less attention to the views of others.

A suggested development task for this group is to continue to show interest in their colleagues’ and clients’ views on important issues, even when under pressure. The quality of the final decision is likely to benefit from increased input from others.

High

People with a high level of empathy will often be described as a good listener. They take time to encourage other people to express their thoughts and feelings, demonstrating an appreciation of the value that others’ perspectives can offer to the team or the project. They show genuine concern for people and recognise the impact that their actions have on those around them. However, they may sometimes be distracted from the task at hand or find it hard to make difficult decisions or have ‘difficult conversations’ because of their over-concern about the thoughts and feelings of other people.

A suggested development task at this level of empathy is to recognise when it is more effective to take a lead without extensive consultation.

7 STEPS TO BUILDING EMPATHY SKILLS

Fortunately for all of us, empathy is a skill that we can learn and strengthen. If you see the value of empathy in building collaborative relationships, building your empathy skills may be of interest to you. Here are a few steps you can take to build your empathy skills;

  1. Remember to maintain a balance between logic and emotion.
  2. Work on your listening skills; especially listening without interrupting the other person.
  3. Pay attention to body language (yours and the other person’s) and other types of nonverbal communication.
  4. Try to acknowledge peoples’ positions, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them.
  5. Use powerful questions to learn more about them and their lives.
  6. Imagine yourself in another person’s shoes, and finally in the words of Dr. Stephen Covey
  7. Seek first to understand and then be understood.

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