When times are tough what is the number one attribute that you value?  Is it advice, sympathy or is it compassion?

Most would agree that compassion is the most beneficial – it has the ability to nurture and calm us while allowing us to gain strength and find our own answers.

Compassion is not just an emotion it is now considered the most important requirement in business, as listening is rare.  There are certain people to whom we feel we can talk because they have such a deep capacity for hearing – really paying attention to what comes out of our heart, not just the words, but also the fears, doubts, and emotions that we may be struggling with at that moment.  They enable us to communicate on a level that we’ve never reached before.  They enable us to be as we’ve never been before.  We will never truly know ourselves unless we find people who can listen, who can enable us to emerge, to come out of ourselves, to discover who we are.  We cannot fully discover ourselves by ourselves.  This is part of the magic of human meaningful interaction.

It amazes me that even in the corporate world the value and importance of meaningful human engagement and interaction is gaining importance. Statements such as killer instinct, nailing the deal, and closing the sale are being replaced with statements such as building relationships, compassion, and empathic interactions as being the new forces that are driving business success. 

In our industry, being a “personal services” industry, business is not just about communicating facts and information to our clients to win their confidence.  Much of what happens in a salon or clinic comes within the realm of interpersonal relationships.  Gaining the trust of your client will depend on your level of professionalism and expertise but it will equally depend on your ability to connect with your client on a more intuitive level. This is where understanding the meaning and value of empathy can be the missing link that will seal the trust and confidence your client will have in you.

Empathy is an essential element of the interpersonal process, and although it is a difficult communication quality to achieve, when mastered, it forms the basis for an excellent relationship between family and friends, and in particular, between therapist and client.

So, what is empathy? It is the ability to accurately perceive another person’s present feelings and their meanings.  It is the antithesis of the very stereotype pre-determine comments that we as therapists sometimes portray, which prompts such comments as “This is a lovely treatment, all our clients love it.”

The Power of Empathy

Empathy treats the other person as an individual.  It requires of you that you seek to perceive and understand the current feelings of your client as they present today, not how they were last time you saw them, but now as the important consideration.  This is where most of us miss it, particularly with people with whom we are familiar, we assume their feelings and state of mind are the same as the last time we saw them when possibly nothing could be further from the truth. Expectations of feelings or behaviour based on earlier experiences can often be misleading because where you have a preconceived frame of mind about a client this makes it very difficult to be in tune with her/his current feelings.  There is a saying “familiarity breeds contempt” and this is so true when we fail to truly be present with someone, just because we feel we know them and assume there is no benefit in connecting at a deeper level.

Empathy for Conflict Resolution

While empathy is always a valuable method of communicating, it is probably of greatest value at a moment of a negative confrontation.  It is easy to interpret literally the verbalisation of a client and ignore the unspoken expressions, deeper veiled messages of the person at the time.  The empathic therapist, therefore, attempts to feel the anxiousness or frustration of her client, while looking for other non-verbal cues but is not disabled by them. She senses the client’s joy, love, fear, or anger as if it were her own feeling, but at the same time does not lose the focus or purpose of her involvement with the client, which is to service their needs in her professional capacity. Meanwhile, empathy enables her to deliver her services in a more personalised manner that will take into consideration the client’s mental and emotional state.

Empathy between two people is a very powerful attraction.  When someone shows us empathy, we tend to gravitate to them as we feel they understand us and have our welfare at heart, this invariably builds our trust in hearing and receiving their recommendations.

Sympathy Verses Empathy

Is the difference between sympathy and empathy just another type of human understanding, or is sympathy a more passive state of relating to the other person?  “You poor lady, how dreadful for you” or, “That is really awful, you must be devastated,” these are sympathy statements that involved the listener being totally engrossed by the other person’s problem but without giving them any reassurance.    Sympathetic understanding involves the process where the helper loses her own separate identity and assumes the client’s feelings and circumstances as if she were that person.

In contrast, empathy requires us to ‘feel’ for the person, yet still maintain our sense of self that will allow us to engage with the other person by offering support or benefit to improve the situation, e.g. “I understand and feel your pain, let’s see how we can help you feel better today”.

Having empathy means the helping person may ‘borrow’ her client’s feelings so that she fully understands them emotionally and intellectually but is always aware of her own separateness and her ability to offer support and relief.

This is a very important element that will allow you to identify a proactive solution, while also maintaining your self-preservation.

Emapathic Perceptions and Communication

For empathic perceptions to be useful they must be communicated effectively both verbally and non-verbally so that the client feels that she/he is understood by the therapist. The empathic therapist listens to her clients in a non-judgmental or non-prejudicial way, noting any special significance in the messages.  Some examples might be: “It seems as if you are very happy with the decision you have made” or, “it sounds as though you are looking forward to continuing”.  Empathic communications articulate back what the client is feeling in a language and tone that the client will be able to relate to and in a way that will affirm their feelings and thoughts.

Research studies reveal that through empathic communication, a client may learn that her point of view is of value to her therapist, that she is being listened to, and that the therapist does really care not only about her treatment or skin problem, but also respects her as an individual.  In this mode of communicating the other person will feel understood and accepted. This will increase the bond and trust between therapist and client.

Empathy a sincere Emotion

When we take a closer look at empathy it can really be summed up as having a sincere and genuine interest in the other person.  Empathy requires putting your ego, your own scattered thoughts, or pre-conceived ideas aside and focusing on the other person with genuine interest and a willingness to really listen to what they have to say while making the effort to hear and understand them.

In a world of gadgets and the plethora of countless communication technologies, the art of conversation, listening and the human element is often replaced with text messages, tweets, and brief mobile phone discussions as we are rushing to our next appointment.  While there is a level of convenience in these interactions, the human soul still longs for something more meaningful. Nothing can and will ever rival the power of empathy in enriching human interactions.

It is true that empathic communication is not a passive process and will not happen automatically, however, it is one worth cultivating and in today’s business world it is the glue that frequently builds trust and leads to a successful business transaction.