Developing Skills for Understanding Other People

by Ruth Hill -

Empathy at Work:

Tom is a great accountant, but his 'people' skills hold him back. I can't see how he'll ever be promoted unless he does something about it.

Many of us know people who have reached a certain point in their careers because of excellent technical abilities – but they somehow don't get along with team members, because they're less accomplished in their people skills.

This might be due to the insensitive manner in which they ask co-workers for things, the way they never seem to listen to what others say, or their intolerance for other methods of working.

Do you have colleagues like Tom? Perhaps you are a bit like Tom, yourself?

Workers with poor people skills can often find themselves in the middle of unnecessary conflict. This can be exhausting and stressful for all concerned, and it can destroy even the best laid work plans.

Many people are confident that they can develop new technical skills and knowledge through training and experience.

However, there's a common belief that "you are how you are" when it comes to "soft" skills (interacting with other people) – and that there's little or nothing you can do about it. Fortunately, this is far from true. 

A great place to start improving your soft skills is by developing the ability to empathize with others.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is simply recognizing emotions in others, and being able to "put yourself in another person's shoes" – understanding the other person's perspective and reality.

To be empathic, you have to think beyond yourself and your own concerns.

Once you see beyond your own world, you'll realize that there's so much to discover and appreciate!

People who are accused of being egotistical and selfish or lacking perspective, have often missed the big picture: that they are only one person in a world with billions of other people (although, yes, this can be overwhelming if you think about it too long!)

If you've been called any of these things, then remind yourself that the world is full of other people and you can't escape their influence on your life.

It's far better to accept this and to decide to build relationships and understanding, rather than try to stand alone all of the time.

Using Empathy Effectively

To start using empathy more effectively, consider the following:

  • Put aside your viewpoint, and try to see things from the other person's point of view.
When you do this, you'll realize that other people most likely aren't being evil, unkind, stubborn, or unreasonable – they're probably just reacting to the situation with the knowledge they have.
  • Validate the other person's perspective.
Once you "see" why others believe what they believe, acknowledge it. Remember: acknowledgement does not always equal agreement. You can accept that people have different opinions from your own, and that they may have good reason to hold those opinions.
  • Examine your attitude.
Are you more concerned with getting your way, winning, or being right? Or, is your priority to find a solution, build relationships, and accept others? Without an open mind and attitude, you probably won't have enough room for empathy.
  • Listen to the entire message that the other person is trying to communicate.
  1. Listen with your ears – what is being said, and what tone is being used?
  2. Listen with your eyes – what is the person doing with his or her body while speaking?
  3. Listen with your instincts – do you sense that the person is not communicating something important?
  4. Listen with your heart – what do you think the other person feels?
  • Ask what the other person would do. 
Practice these skills when you interact with people. You'll likely appear much more caring and approachable – simply because you increase your interest in what others think, feel, and experience. 
It's a great gift to be willing and able to see the world from a variety of perspectives – and it's a gift that you can use all of the time, in any situation. When in doubt, ask the person to explain his or her position.  
This is probably the simplest and most direct, way to understand the other person. However, it's probably the least used way to develop empathy. It's fine if you ask what the other person wants: you don't earn any "bonus points" for figuring it out on your own.  
For example, the boss who gives her young team members turkey vouchers for the holidays, when most of them don't even cook, is using her idea of a practical gift – not theirs.
More tips for an empathic conversation:

  • Pay attention, physically and mentally, to what's happening.
  • Listen carefully, and note the key words and phrases that people use.
  • Respond encouragingly to the central message.
  • Be flexible – prepare to change direction as the other person's thoughts and feelings also change.
  • Look for cues that you're on target.

Developing an empathic approach is perhaps the most significant effort you can make toward improving your people skills. When you understand others, they'll probably want to understand you – and this is how you can start to build cooperation, collaboration, and teamwork.

The Mind Tools site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!
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