Empathy in business feels a bit like teenage sex. 

At 16 years old, everybody thinks that everybody else is doing it. A few confidently say how good they are at it. In reality, none of it is the truth.  

I've been fortunate to see the amazing Belinda Parmar OBE of the Empathy Business / Lady Geek speak twice now, once at the APMP UK Conference and then again today at an Empathy in Business workshop put on by the APMP.  And like all things we're not very good at, showing empathy to colleagues, clients, family and friends seems very obvious and easy to do, but it's actually very hard to get right and it's something you've got to practice, practice and practice again. 

Listening to Belinda today made me consider how the techniques of showing empathy to others in a business environment translate to my role. 

The techniques Belinda teaches and demonstrates through her work and research feel natural and achievable. I apply them with my team and colleagues in a workshop or meeting. These includes:

  • Use of learning and practicing tools to build relationships quicker such as, active listening and mirroring in conversations.
  • Using 'nudges' to help humanize interactions (we’ll see some examples of that here).  
  • Being more purposeful with how I design my workshops, attend board meetings, and create workloads. Ensuring everyone contributes, feels involved, and sees their part in what we're trying to achieve.

She teaches an interesting model, EMBRACE (see below) which I'm keen to explore further too...

But, when I'm not in an environment where I'm in control of the conversation or interaction, things get more difficult. 

I sometimes face the empathy double-bubble in the high-stress environment of negotiations and pitch interviews. In these situations, not only does my team need to build empathy with a panel of evaluators but also, show empathy to one another. Regardless of each evaluator having their own drivers, agenda and unique view of the world. Also, for them to build a coherent argument and proposition, they have to respect each other's roles, actively listen, and support each other.

The real challenge comes up when the team has been put together at relatively short notice for the pitch. Add this to the fact that the team may not have met many of the evaluators before, and you have a mare’s nest.

So, how do pitch or negotiation teams overcome this challenge?

Here are my considerations.

  • Include empathy practice in pre-pitch exercises. Running scenarios to help identify and overcome empathy challenges within the team is a good start. It could be by helping a strong character to be more aware of their impact on other team members. Or training the team on listening to each other and the client
  • Through training, awareness, and coaching to help the team understand the impact empathy will have on the client team. This helps the pitch team build rapport and empathy with all members of the client’s team. Not just the ones they already know or those they've been naturally drawn towards. For instance, our CEO may naturally talk to the lead from the client team and not talk as much to the procurement manager running the event.
  • Incorporate stress training into the exercise. This helps the team adapt to the natural spike in their emotions and nervous system when they go in front of a client. It is particularly good for the boastful Bobby’s who think they've got empathy down to a tee. Those who believe they don't need to do all these "soft skills" stuff because they've done loads of pitches. I may be speaking from experience when I pick up that one...

One thing I need to consider is external support. This skill needs to be developed in a high-pressure environment. As a team is preparing a technical pitch, negotiation strategy or a combination of the two, getting a specialist to own this and accelerate the process is something to consider. 

Empathy is a really fascinating topic which I'm keen to learn more about.  I've linked a video from Belinda below. I'd be keen to hear your views - hit me up on twitter.