This year the Design Thinking Conference in Amsterdam was about empathy, an element of the Design Thinking approach that starts it. Don’t you agree that in order to help somebody we need to understand him first? We need to understand the person, his challenges and context, before we start providing solutions. Empathy can serve a helping hand in building understanding and trust.
The Oxford dictionary defines the empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person without having the same experience. If we are emphatic with someone we try to understand his point of view, his emotions and arguments. Empathy does not mean that we agree with these views, but we genuinely interested in this person situation and in his story.
Through exercising true understanding the teams can come with the best solutions to business and social problems. Let me give an example how emphatic thinking helped saving lives. 4 million premature and low birth weight babies born each year die due to hypothermia. This can be prevented by putting a baby in an incubator. Traditional incubators are expensive, cost between €7,000 – €20,000, and are available only in urban hospitals. Most of the babies who need help are born in rural areas and their parents don’t have a possibility to get their babies to hospitals. So even increasing a number of incubators in hospitals does not solve the problem. If you want to learn how this problem got solved, watch this movie:
Isn’t it amazing? This situation is however somehow different from our corporate environment, don’t you think?
Empathy in a business setting is an essential ingredient in the relationship building. Empathy results in trust and necessary openness from business stakeholders to share their true needs and challenges. Based on these insights the organization can build products or services that address them.
Being empathic in business means relating to its environment, being open to the stakeholders, being vulnerable. You share your thoughts, challenges with your stakeholders openly and involve them in the process of creating a solution. No hidden agendas. Openness and transparency rule. For some it may be terrifying. It may give an impression of losing control, letting go. Especially if we want to push the business in certain direction; when we are biased by a certain solution. The open and transparent collaboration with the stakeholders may end up with a solution that is different from the one we roughly thought will be the right way to move things forward. Are you ready for this? This might be terrifying. Empathy means embracing this uncertainly for a greater good.
From the Business Analysis point of view, empathy is a very useful skill for Business Analysts. Due to interactive and facilitative character of the job, empathy can certainly help Business Analyst to get stakeholders aligned and empathic to each other’s viewpoints. Through creating an atmosphere of openness and trust a Business Analyst can bring the stakeholders together to allow them understand each other, share ideas and work out solutions to the problem at hand. This in its turn creates shared understanding and transparency. We know that those are elements that help delivering true business value to whoever our customer is.
As simple as this process can be, it is not. The analytical and the empathy do not go along well. It is related to how our brain works. When the brain fires up the network of neurons that allows us to empathize, it suppresses the network used for analysis. Research shows we cannot be emphatic and analytical at the same time. Business Analyst has a strong analytical site and this characteristic can stand in his way of being truly empathic with others.
Knowing this, we can organize work with stakeholders in a way that allows us first take time to understand them, undisturbed by analysis. After that the analysis can start. In practice it is a balance act, because of time pressure we experience in our projects. But the benefits we gain can be appealing to find a way to embrace these two steps in our work.
Not everyone is born with good empathy skills. But do not lose heart! Empathy can be learned. To become more empathic person you need to go out of our comfort zone, and challenge yourself and your prejudices. It requires courage. We can learn empathy by cultivating curiosity about other people around us, when we try to understand the world inside the head of the other person. We meet strangers every day, like client buying our product or a new employee who always eats his lunch alone. We can challenge ourselves to start a conversation with a stranger, and discover his or her story (so no talks about the weather, this does not count). Through activities like that, our skill gets better and better giving us confidence in using it without fear in our projects.