Empathy - The Most Important Skill in Business?

I know what you’re thinking.

Well, actually, I don’t. But it would help if I did. Imagine how much easier it would be for me to write this post if I knew how much time you had to read it, how much you already know about empathy, and whether you learn best from stories or facts. It would greatly increase my chances of writing an article that you felt was written just for you, and which you will enjoy from start to finish.

The fact that I am thinking about these things as I start writing this post is a demonstration of how to use empathy. For me to get the best result I need to write the article that you want to read, not simply the one that I want to write, and in order to do that I need to think about you.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself in the position of another person, to feel what they are feeling, or to “put yourself in their shoes”. The more empathetic you are, the more likely it is that you can feel what they would feel in a given situation. It is the ability to say “if I was that person in their current situation, with their history, experiences, knowledge, beliefs and even genetics, how would I be feeling?”.

People who lack empathy struggle to see things as others do. This could be caused by a number of disorders, but within healthy people it is often simply the mistake of assuming that because you feel one way about a situation that others are going to feel the same way. It is easy to forget how many factors affect how we interpret and experience the world around us.

Empathy vs Sympathy

Empathy is often confused with sympathy, partly because it is common to feel both empathy and sympathy at the same time. The main difference is that empathy is the ability to understand or know how someone is feeling, whereas sympathy is more about caring about how they are feeling.

So it is possible to feel empathy but not sympathy, such as when you can accurately predict how someone is feeling without actually caring about how that person feels.

You can also feel sympathy but not empathy. An example would be when you feel sorry for someone who is going through a difficult situation, but cannot easily imagine exactly what they must be feeling.

However, it is more common to have both empathy and sympathy at the same time. This makes sense as it is easier to understand someone if you care about them, and easier to care about someone if you understand them.

The Importance of Empathy

It is hard to find a business situation where empathy doesn’t have a role to play. Think about how much of your time today was spent doing something that either directly or indirectly involved or impacted a customer, supplier, employee, employer, partner or investor? For most people the answer is probably 100%. Most of us we are dealing with people almost all of the time in business, and empathy is going to help in every one of these situations. The better able to predict how someone with think or feel about a given situation, the better placed you are to design a product or deliver a message in a way that will get the results you are hoping for.

Here are some examples:

A manager who understands what motivates each of her team members will be better able to find ways to get the best out of her staff than one who simply assumes that they can be motivated by the same things that motivate her. A salesperson who takes the time to learn as much as they can about a customer will have a better chance of tailoring their approach and making a sale, relative to one who simply follows a script or discusses facts and figures without any regard to who they are trying to sell to. A web designer who is working on a major website redesign will be better able to create an effective experience for visitors if they can imagine who their typical visitors are and what it would be like to see the website for the very first time, even though they have been working on the design for weeks and lost the ability to look at it truly objectively long ago.

How to Improve Your Skills

If you want to become more empathetic, here are some things you can try.

Listen more

This one is easy, and almost every book about communication, negotiations or sales will tell you to improve your listening skills. If you are going to try to imagine what it is like to be someone else, the more you know about that person the better. Stop using the time when someone else is talking to plan what you are going to say next, and actually focus to what they are saying. And ask questions to keep them talking. (This has the added bonus of making you more likable, as it has been shown that people like it when other people listen to them).

Ask for help

As humans we are very poor at being objective about situations that we are closely involved with, and emotions usually play a much bigger part in our decision making that we think they do. If you are worried that your message is not being received in the way you had hoped, ask someone else for advice. They may be able to look at the situation more objectively than you can.

Put yourself in other people’s shoes

If you find it difficult to imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s position, see if there is a way to physically put yourself in their position. Zappos, known for their exceptional customer service, require all new employees (even senior managers) to spend a significant part of their training manning the phones in the call centre. This allows senior staff to learn what is important to their customers though direct interaction, not via information fed up through middle management. It also allows them to understand what it is like to work in the call centre, greatly increasing their empathy towards those staff and making it possible for them to to create an environment that supports their needs.

Be open to alternative views

You may have heard of Hanlon’s Razor? It says:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

It’s a great way to remind yourself to assume the best in people, at least until proven otherwise.

When thinking about empathy I use something similar. It goes like this:

Never attribute to a lack of intelligence or morals that which is adequately explained by differing backgrounds or situations.

In other words, when you have a difference of opinion with someone first ask yourself if it’s possible that it is due to different situations, experiences and backgrounds rather than “I am right, so they must be wrong”. In other words, is it possible that if you were in their shoes that your thinking might be closer to theirs?

For example:

“Stealing is always wrong!”

It seems like all reasonable people would agree with this, right? But what if the person caught stealing was doing it to get medicine for their dying child? Wouldn’t you consider doing the same if you were in that situation? Your current circumstances can play a big part in how you see a range of issues, including moral dilemmas.

“There is one God, and that is my God!”

It is highly likely that if you grew up in a different part of the world that you would hold an equally strong view as you do now, but about a totally different God or the lack of any God. We like to think that our beliefs are based on our own free will, but the evidence is that the community you are born into has a lot to do with your beliefs on a whole range of issues.

We’re Only Human

As humans we all like to think of ourselves as rational beings, and believe that in most situations there is a right and wrong answer and we can usually tell one from the other. Unfortunately this is far from the case, and without going too far into a topic that deserves a whole discussion of it’s own, humans are substantially poorer decision makers than we like to think. Read any research by Daniel Kahneman or Amos Tversky, or books by Dan Ariely, Dan Pink or Malcolm Gladwell, to learn more.

It is very useful to keep this in mind. When you disagree with someone it is possible that the reason they disagrees with you is because they are only human and are suffering from one of many decision making biases that we are all susceptible to. These include the abiguity effect, anchoring, attentional bias, availability heuristic, availability cascade… and these are just some of the A’s!

Of course, it is equally likely that the person that is unknowingly suffering from one of these cognitive bias is you… it will just be much harder to observe it in yourself than in others.

An empathetic person will remember that we are all human and regularly suffer from cognitive biases, and will take this into account in our interactions with others.

In Closing

To finish, here is a quote from the classic book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. The author, Dale Carnegie, wrote:

“People who can put themselves in the place of other people, who can understand the workings of their minds, need never worry about what the future has in store for them.

If you get just one thing out of this book – an increased tendency to think always in terms of other people’s point of view, and see things from their angle – if you get just that one thing, it may easily prove to be one of the building blocks of your career.”

Carnegie wrote this in 1936, yet it is even more relevant today due to factors such as the growth of the services sector and the rise of social media. Business, at its heart, is about people. No matter what your role, the better you are at understanding people the more effective a business person you will be.

Know Your Ideal Client

Whether your business is purely online, or you are a traditional provider of products or services, it is vital to know what your ideal client looks like.



Marketing is cheaper, easier and more successful when you target a small and clearly defined group of customers. One of the goals of marketing should be to make your customers feel like your message was designed just for them. The broader the group you target, the harder it is to achieve this goal.

Provides Focus for Startups

Put simply, if you can’t convince your ideal client to buy from you, it’s unlikely you’ll convince anyone else. As most startups only need a small number of customers to make the start they need, it’s better to aim narrow and win some business then expand from there, rather than aim wide but impress nobody.

Referred Business

Giving the people around you a clear description of your ideal client greatly increases the chances of receiving referred business. Simply telling people what you do forces them to do too much mental work to match you up with potential clients and (to be perfectly blunt) they have better things to do with their time. Make it so easy for them to identify an ideal client and it will happen even without them trying.


Let’s face it, most people don’t love attending networking events. The standard opening of “so, what do you do?” gets tired after about the tenth introduction of the night, and will lead to some boring responses.

To make the conversations more interesting for both you and the other person, if you’re asked this question trying this: instead of answering with your regular description of your role, answer in a way that is more about how you help your clients (specifically your ideal clients) to solve a problem. This will almost certainly lead to a more interesting conversation for both of you.

Similarly, instead of asking other people what they do, try asking who their ideal client is. It will likely make them stop and think, and generate a more interesting and thoughtful response than the old “what do you do?” question. If they find the question interesting, it’ll give you the opportunity to talk about why it is such an important question which in itself is an interesting conversation. This is sure to make the night a little more fun, and given the discussion about about referred business, is likely to lead to more leads than just talking about yourself.


Asking interesting questions of others is good, but actually caring about the response is even better. And following up on that information after the event is better again.

If someone does a good description of their ideal client and you decide later that you’d like to help this person, you have a much better idea of how to identify potential leads for them. And if you do this enough, thanks to the social convention of “reciprocity” (see link below), it’s likely that you’ll get some business coming back your way in the future.


have a very clear picture in your mind of what your ideal client looks like; focus on impressing this group before expanding into a wider target market; tell the people around you what your ideal client looks like to make it easy for them to identify leads for you; ask other people what their ideal client looks like; and look for opportunities to match other people with their ideal clients where it makes sense.

Further reading

Wikipedia: Reciprocity

10 Simple Ways to Be More Likable