Empathy--"The ability to share in another's emotions, thoughts or feelings." -- Webster's New World Dictionary
If you want to persuade and influence people to buy into your idea, product, or service, you must first understand them. You must learn everything you can about them. Who are they? What are their dreams, aspirations and fears?
Nelson Mandela valued the power of understanding others, including his enemies. Richard Shell and Mario Moussa, in The Art of the Woo, tell how Mandela wanted to persuade his jailers to improve treatment for all of the inmates in Robbins Island prison, where they were held captive.
A major part of his strategy was to get inside the minds of his captors. To that end, he taught himself to speak and comprehend Afrikaans, and learned the history, culture and values of the Afrikaaners. In order to best communicate what he wanted, he needed to truly know where his adversaries were coming from. Or as Mandela put it: "You must understand the mind of the opposing commander...you can't understand him unless you understand his literature and his language." This empathetic comprehension of those who were guarding him and his fellow inmates led to better conditions in an otherwise oppressive jail.
In dealing with clients, you probably won't have to learn a foreign language, but you do need to understand what words, phrases and vocabulary will resonate. When I worked for Roger Ailes at CNBC, he told me that if the person on the receiving end of your communication doesn't get what you're talking about, it's your responsibility to figure out how to say it so she does.
Many years ago, I took acting lessons just for the fun of it. I learned a very valuable lesson from the teacher. When you play a part you must view the world from the perspective of your character. Your interpretation of the role depends upon it. It's no different in business. Adapting your message means knowing your audience, not just the facts about them, but their feelings and attitudes as well.
Barbara Walters tells this story about Roone Arledge, who was my boss when I was a correspondent at ABC News. If she invited him to a dinner party, he would ask for the bio of everyone who was going to be there. Maybe Arledge was socially anxious and looking for some way to make small talk, but I don't believe that was the case. I think he wanted to have a little background information of where they were coming from to communicate with them better and make it a more fruitful evening.
This empathetic connection to others goes well beyond business. Michael Eisner, the former chairman of Disney, thinks people have it all wrong when they insist that the ability to say "I'm sorry" is the most important communication skill in a marriage. He states that understanding your spouse's point of view is really the gold in a valued connection, and I concur.
Simply put, the power of empathy is putting yourself in the other person's place, and then choosing the right words to connect to what he wants and needs.