How empathetic are you? Did you ever think about how empathy can boost your career success?
Soft skills are important. We all should know this by now. However, it can be hard to give them the time they deserve to develop.
Because they seem so nebulous compared to hard, technical skills, which can easily be checked for proficiency levels, soft skills are often left as an afterthought.
Do you have good communication skills? Are you a good listener? Check the box and move on. But how do you know you’re actually good at these things?
When teams struggle with communication or collaboration, the work can suffer. When there’s bad team collaboration, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your employees are lacking soft skills – it could just mean that they haven’t figured out how to use them effectively with each other. It is at this juncture that you might bring in someone like Sharon Steed.
Steed, who is speaking at Pixel Pioneers Belfast, is a corporate empathy and communications consultant.
“An empathy consultant is a person that focuses on assisting teams, people and companies to optimise collaboration through principles of empathy,” she said.
“I teach people how to communicate with empathy, I teach people how to collaborate with other people in a way that’s going to really suit that communication and then I also teach effective management.”
Steed said that effective management is all about focusing on the purpose of the team you’re managing and considering them as individuals.
A lot of people take leadership from the approach of treating all employees on their team as exactly the same. However, Steed advises taking each team and individual at their base line, which will ensure you treat each one how they should be treated.
‘The first way to increase your communication is to just be extremely patient’
– SHARON STEED
Steed is the founder and CEO of Communilogue, a consulting firm that specialises in creating collaborative environments with principles of empathy.
She decided to start the firm after she began speaking at events about her own stutter and how it had once stunted a lot of aspects of her life.
“I was giving talks and the main idea that people were taking away was that being very empathetic can really boost your career, boost your communication and boost your collaboration,” she said. “After that, I began to focus my talks on just communicating with empathy.”
The importance of communication
Being empathetic, patient and a good listener are all extremely important qualities both for one’s personal life and for their career. However, recruiters and managers can often value the hard skills an employee needs more.
“I definitely had some pushback from companies and from people who say: ‘Yeah, this is a great tool and you have great thoughts, however, we want to focus on those hard, technical skills,’” she said.
“Communication should be a hard skill because every single person out there, even if you’re sitting alone in a corner on your computer all day, has to communicate.”
Steed said that people are often guilty of jumping to conclusions about what people mean when they talk and this can lead to communication breakdowns within teams. “The first way to increase your communication is to just be extremely patient.”
Being patient and empathetic will, Steed said, lead to better listening, better understanding and better communication.
“The biggest thing that I teach is active listening, so we kind of view conversations as: ‘I’m talking, and now the other person is talking and I’m just going to hang out here until they’re done talking and then I’m going to talk again,’” she explained.
“We should be viewing conversations from the point of view of, ‘How can I take away something profound? How can I be inspired?’ All of those things only happen if we’re paying attention to all of the things that other people are trying to say.”
It’s not just employees who need empathy coaching, according to Steed. “Company culture is grown and cultivated at the bottom, however, all of the things that the people at the top are doing is always going to make it all the way down the pyramid.”
When it comes to coaching a particular team, she would often pull the manager to one side and offer one-on-one coaching to put them more at ease.
‘A lot of the time, communication breaks down because we are afraid to speak up and say: “I don’t totally understand this”’
– SHARON STEED
Steed’s coaching promises better productivity, but this is not about making sure the team works harder. It’s about collaboration.
“The teams that are the most collaborative are going to be the most productive,” she said. “Productivity, for me, comes down to communication. The way that we speak to people is going to determine how collaborative our teams are going to be.”
She advised teams to be as clear as possible, but also to speak up when you’re not sure about something. “A lot of the time, communication breaks down because we are afraid to speak up and say: ‘I don’t totally understand this.’
“If we are creating an environment where people feel they can speak up, then communication problems are just not going to exist and collaboration is always going to flourish. As a result, the entire team is going to be incredibly productive.”
As a lifelong stutterer, Steed started as a keynote speaker on that very topic. While it branched from there into the importance of empathy in your career, Steed still talks about the importance of not hiding insecurities.
“Everybody has their own insecurities and their own vulnerabilities and we’re trying to conceal them,” she said. “However, a lot of the time, when we are trying to hide these things, we’re actually feeding into the shame of it and the embarrassment of it.
“I don’t want to say embrace it, but if you just say: ‘OK, I feel insecure about x’ then you aren’t going to give it any more power over you.’”
Steed said that while people are trying to hide their insecurities, they’re still constantly thinking about them, which gives them power.
“If we could kind of acknowledge them, then they aren’t going to have that power over us any more.”
Sharon Steed is speaking at Pixel Pioneers Belfast on 16 November. She will also run a two-hour interactive workshop on improving team communication, collaboration and inclusion through empathy on 18 November.