Being Empathic and Self-Aware

How you can improve your empathy by focusing on others and yourself.

Empathy. A lot of people sort of know what it means. And others think it’s not very important. But in business as in life, empathy is a superpower. 

But, first off, let’s define terms. What is empathy exactly and why do I need it?

Empathy is the ability to see things from the other person’s viewpoint. To walk a mile in their shoes. To see life how they see it. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes that’s near impossible, but any effort towards that will reward us greatly. How to focus on others and ourselves

But isn’t that, like, a sign of weakness? To be trying, not to put forward our point of view, our argument, but to be all reasonable, and to understand where they’re coming from? How does that help me and my agenda? 

So much of business is about negotiation, to and fro, compromise, exchanging information, adjusting positions. All to end up with a negotiated end point that everyone can live with. 

When you’re new to the game of leadership you want to win at all costs. Like a child does. They’ll cheat, lie, throw a tantrum to get their way and win the game of whatever it is. One minute later they’re over it, it’s forgotten, but the adults are still tight-lipped with anger at what just happened. 

As you gain experience you soon understand that ‘winning at all costs’ is often the best way to lose. To lose the deal, lose respect, lose relationships, lose your job. So to engage in dialogue, not monologue, to engage in give and take is the best way forward. But you still want to make things go your way. So how do you do that? 


Don’t ask me. 

Ask instead some of the finest minds on the planet. Ask chess grand masters. World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen reckons he can see about 15 moves ahead. That means he can see what moves he wants to make that far ahead but it also means he has considered what moves his opponent might make in response. All the possible moves plus the most likely moves. Think about that. I can’t, as it’s given me a headache. 

To do that he has to constantly think about his opponent. Their usual moves, their state of mind, their mood right now, the speed they’re thinking and moving – Carlsen can’t stay in his mind if he wants to win, he has to constantly probe his opponent’s mind, trying to understand exactly what and how they’re thinking and feeling. That’s empathy. 

No Sympathy

So empathy is not sympathy. It can be hard-nosed and selfish but it’s a skill you need if you want to succeed in business. How else can you change someone’s mind unless you can see how that mind works and what it wants out of this? 

Often, it’s a simple change of tone. Don’t change the words, change the tone. So ‘Why is he acting like that?’ becomes not a question of irritation but a genuine enquiry, asked quietly and with interest. Same as ‘Why did she say that?’. Ask as if you really want to find out the answer, not that you simply found their question frustrating or annoying. You’ll get better results. 

Look at Yourself

So that’s empathy, thinking about the motives and mood and drivers of others. Now we need to turn that focus on ourselves. Which in many ways is of course harder. And is it simply selfish and self-absorbed to be looking at ourselves like this? 

No it isn’t. Is someone endlessly taking selfies of themselves against various backdrops showing self-awareness? No. Is the successful person who’s obviously and constantly very self-satisfied showing self-awareness? No. Is someone who’s very shy and self-conscious self-aware? Actually, no. 

Being self-aware means being aware of not just your moods but what is driving them. Of not just what you’ve said or done, but why you said or did that particular thing at that time. Let’s look at an example. 

Self-Awareness In Action

You become aware that the thing you just said to someone has made them go quiet and possibly irritated and resentful. Empathy will have made you aware of the effect you had. You didn’t mean to have that effect. This is where we can look deeper, using the ‘5 Whys’ technique pioneered by the founder of the Toyota car company. 

So what’s with you? I said that because I’m irritable. 
Why are you irritable? Because I’m not sleeping well. 
Why aren’t you sleeping well? Because I’m staying up late and drinking too much. 
Why are you doing that? Because to be honest, I’m just a bit stressed. 
Aha. So, why are you stressed? Oh I dunno. Well, I do. Because I think my boyfriend is losing interest and I had so many plans for us. 

Right. So you were short and rude to someone at work because of a worry about your private life. This is a clear sign that you need to get your private life and your thoughts in order if you’re not to damage your standing and your relationships at work. You can see where the work needs to be done on yourself. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. Start now. 

That is how self-awareness can improve your personal and professional life, your self-confidence, your self-control, your pride in your work and your person, and your ability to make decisions. 

And if you match that self-awareness with the awareness of others, by using empathy, then you’re going to be a grandmaster of life skills.

Your move. 

Written in partnership with Graham Scott - an award author, publisher and staff writer who has been writing professionally for four decades.

Successful executives have the ability to understand others and themselves. How can you develop your empathy? 

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