Here is a true story.
Last summer in New York I was at a crowded bar when I saw a girl in a green skirt out of the corner of my eye. We made eye contact and I walked over to introduce myself. Just as I opened my mouth to say something, a woman stepped in between us and whispered soberly in the girl's ear:
"Mom just called... the cancer is back."
The girl's drink clinked down on the table as she brushed past me. I went outside and found her sitting on a bench down the street, with her face buried in her hands. I walked up slowly and sat down next to her. I took two deep, slow breaths, and looked at her.
"I'm sorry," I said. "That must be hard."
The girl continued crying and didn't say anything. I handed her my phone number and told her to call me if she ever wanted to talk.
We dated for the following year.
Empathy is the most significant factor in building relationships. Whether it's with your best friend, teacher, coworker, or girlfriend, empathy is the most influential element in forming trust and building rapport with other people.
Here is another story.
One day during the summer before I turned fourteen, I was at a day camp near Walden Lake in Massachusetts. My friend, Scott, was playfully teasing another camper, Monica, about her mascara-smeared eyebrows -- an accident she had caused after washing her face in the lake.
Embarrassed, Monica shouted at Scott, "Well, at least I HAVE eyebrows," without realizing that Scott had recently recovered from leukemia.
As the other kids were laughing at him, Scott sulked away and sat on a rock under the shade of a low tree -- away from the other campers, burying his face in the palms of his hands.
I walked over to Scott, sat down next to him, put my arm on his shoulder, and said, "I'm sorry. That must have hurt."
Scott has been one of my best friends since that day.
Empathy is the most powerful tool we possess to bond with people. Personality, similarities, attitude, and initiative all help bring people together yet they are inferior to empathy as a key building block of relationships.
Outside of personal relationships, empathy is the most important factor in strategic partnerships, sales, business development, and customer acquisition.
Persuasion and enticement are shallow, ineffective sales tactics. If we want to effectively convince someone then we need to empathize with them.
Here are the five steps to effectively create empathy with your client, business partner, or date:
The most impactful thing you can do to build empathy is to do nothing at all. Merely listening to another person shows them that you care about what they are saying, which makes them trust you. Listening is a whole-body experience: maintain eye contact, nod when they finish a statement, and keep your mouth shut. Don't interrupt -- this will make them think you aren't listening or don't care. Refrain from giving advice -- this will make them think that you are simplifying or neglecting their concern.
Once you have let them talk through their thoughts in their entirety, allow a few moments of silence for both of you to digest the information. Reflect on what they said by repeating it back in your words, so that they know you heard and understand their position. At this point, still refrain from offering any advice or opinion.
Now that you have listened, and demonstrated to them that you have listened, you will both feel closer to each other. Now you can make a personal connection by drawing a similarity between their situation and yours, and letting them know that you understand how they feel.
When someone has a problem in their life, friends and family will naturally be there for solace. Take it a step further by revisiting their concern a week or two later. To them, this shows that their issue is still on your mind and that it is of real importance to you. This will cause them to recognize you as someone that they can talk to about their problems. If you continue to empathize with them, it will evolve into a positive feedback loop -- they come to you with their concerns, you empathize with them, and your bond becomes stronger.
The type of communication and trust that you can build using this strategy is more powerful than any humor, kindness, or charisma that a person might use to form a relationship with a friend or client. If we create empathy with a prospective client, then our competitors don't stand a chance. No amount of salesmanship can pose a threat to a relationship that is bound by empathy; it will go immeasurably further than any sales tactic you would have otherwise employed.
Relationships are the most important things we have, and they add more value to our life than any amount of money or success ever could. Thus, using empathy in our relationships can drastically improve our lives.