ITL #285 Professional empathy: A skill often overlooked in marketing communications4 years, 2 months ago
ITL #285 Professional empathy: A skill often overlooked in marketing communications
A question brought to our senior team on at least a weekly basis through social media, LinkedIn, email and at information sessions we host at Faulhaber Communications is what are the skills I should learn to succeed or advance in our industry? We often reply with practical and I believe valuable answers like presentation skills, copy editing skills, content creation skills and an understanding of digital analytics but less frequently share feedback or give advice about the importance of soft skills. Soft skills are especially important in today’s ever connected universe as we become increasingly less self aware and mindful of how our behaviour is affecting those around us.
One of the most critical soft skills is well developed professional empathy. As defined by Oxford Dictionaries, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy should not to be confused with sympathy, feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune.
Interestingly, significant research has shown that managers with well developed professional empathy are popular leaders and overall more effective in leadership and their management roles. When I started to learn about the concept of professional empathy many years ago after being sent to a career coach for having low empathy by a previous employer, I found the entire concept baffling. My work was top notch, my clients loved me, I generated significant revenue and achieved great results through my team. I genuinely didn’t understand what the problem was. This coach told me I preferred my interactions with employees who were able to present information by being bright, brief and gone. I thought she was exactly right and struggled to understand who could think for a moment that this wasn’t the best, most efficient form of communication.
Then I started to listen.
She was able to explain to me that most people had a higher level of emotional need than I did and may have simply been unable to work as quickly or process information as quickly. As a result, when communicating with “those people” – might I add, most of the population and many high performers – I could come off as cold, impatient and generally disinterested in people as people.
I took a moment to internalize this feedback and thought about how I could bring it into the workplace for greater shared success. Eventually, after many coaching sessions and to be honest, several years of practicising self awareness, I learned how to have a softer shell and make people feel valued. While I absolutely do not have empathy as one of my top 10 or even 20 natural Gallup strengths, I try to work on it every day.
Further, as a senior leader at one of Canada’s top marketing and communications agencies with a specialty in lifestyle brands, I find I am acutely aware of when this is a skill that needs to be developed by a junior leader and find myself taking the time to highlight it as a development area and provide related coaching. I am now absolutely convinced that in our industry, it is impossible to reach your full potential and maximize the contributions of your team if you lack professional empathy.
At the same time, I do believe like many attributes of a strong leader, it takes time to develop and more so in industries dominated by type A personalities and tight timelines like ours. Here are a few tips and ways to demonstrate professional empathy in the workplace every day.
I would be lying if I said this one was not still a development area for me but it’s about putting your phone down or closing your laptop to make a meaningful contribution to a meeting or conversation. Not focusing on someone with an idea, a problem or perspective sends one message. That they or what they are saying is not important. No one likes to feel that way and over time it can affect team perceptions of a leader.
Listen and ask questions
Take time to hear an entire perspective before interjecting or shutting it down. Then ask questions to clarify or fully understand before you provide an opinion or recommendation.
Make a conscious effort to get to know the team on a personal level
This doesn’t mean texting them on a weekend or inviting them to your cottage. But it does mean knowing their passions, checking in on how their weekend was and remembering (at least some) of the details.
A former colleague once told me a story about a leader who asked her about her weekend in the elevator. The employee told a story about her husband breaking his leg while they were camping and shared details that were quite traumatic. The leader then tousled her hair and said “sounds great” before hopping off the elevator. This employee’s perspective was forever changed and I don’t know if the leader was ever able to change their perception. The message they sent was that the employee didn’t matter, so they didn’t listen and they didn’t care.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to imagine the pressures of their role
This is perhaps the scenario I see come up the most in our industry, an acute unawareness of what someone else’s day is like and a belief that you are the only person under pressure. Every time I see this in our office, I take a moment to call out the importance of professional empathy and sometimes will even highlight that responsibilities only increase as your seniority increases and provide context of what the person being criticized may be struggling to manage.
When appropriate, offer solutions
When someone comes to you, when you can, offer solutions. It doesn’t mean you can or should fix their problems but it can often make people feel valued or heard if you give a few options or examples that show how you could help. They might not even take you up on the offer but taking the time to show you are willing to do what you can will go a long way and affect how you are perceived. It often goes a lot farther to proactively suggest ways you can help and await feedback than simply ask an open-ended question.
While developing and maintaining professional empathy is for many people, like me, a work in progress, I do think it is critically important our industry spends time educating future leaders about this soft skill and making every effort to lead by example.
Andrea Anders, Vice President, Faulhaber Communications, is a dynamic agency leader with a knack for word perfect prose. She develops strategies that drive business results and thinks critically about finding new ways to reach and influence the audiences important to her clients.mail the author
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