This is a good news/bad news tale.
The bad news is that both good manners and empathy appear to be on the decline.
I’m making a broad statement, but I’ve felt its truth. A colleague who effectively resigns through LinkedIn. A relative who is broken up with via text message. A supervisor who publicly reprimands a subordinate. A restaurant patron whose cell phone obsession ruins a night out for everyone else.
But there’s more to it than just personal pet peeves. Scientific studies support the anecdotal evidence. For example, researchers at the University of Michigan analyzed self-reported empathy scores from 72 different studies involving almost 14,000 college students. They discovered that empathy has declined, with an abrupt drop since 2000. Almost 75% of the students rated themselves as less empathetic than the average student 30 years ago.
And we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves.
The 21st century technological explosion has certainly led to an increase in cognitive understanding. But as Psychology Today reports, “As screen time goes up, empathy goes down.” We may be more interconnected, but we’re in danger of losing our emotional connections.
Don’t get me wrong. I love being able to connect online with people in my life. In fact, EPI consists of virtual team members in several different cities. We rely on technology daily to stay informed and connected. But we also recognize the need to nurture our relationships in deeper ways – with one another and with our clients – through frequent voice and occasional in-person contact. We have built a culture of empathy, respect, and common courtesy.
The good news is that you can – and should – cultivate empathy.
Researchers from the study referenced above are encouraged because a decline in empathy means empathy is fluid. If it can go down, then it can also go up. And when empathy goes up, it’s not only good for human beings on a social level. It’s also good for business.
A Harvard Business Review article by Belinda Parmar argues that empathy is a “hard skill.” She goes on to state that “Corporations must demonstrate empathy across three channels: internally, to their own employees; externally, to their customers; and finally, to the public via social media.” Do that and you can expect a measurable increase in both staff and customer loyalty.
So how can we cultivate empathy?
- Practice good manners. Empathy and etiquette are inextricably entwined. Psychologist Dr. Marie Harwell-Walker explains that teaching manners to children actually breeds empathy. The social niceties of “Thank you” and “How are you?” may seem a little fake to us adults at times, but those niceties engender a baseline of respect that lays a lifelong foundation for empathy.
- Model empathy and courtesy from the top down. You can’t expect your teammates to behave well if you don’t.
- Listen with insight. Practice active listening and pay close attention to words, tone, and body language – yours and theirs.
- Show an interest. When you show an interest, you become interested. Curiosity is contagious.
- Read fiction. You heard me. A lot of research shows that people who read literary fiction are more empathetic. And there are also indications that people who watch character-driven dramatic television series or play “immersive, narrative video games” may also improve their empathy skills.
I grew up learning the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It sounds corny, but it’s still relevant.
Have you ever wished a colleague would truly listen rather than stare at his phone while you’re describing a tough situation? Consider how well you listen when a teammate describes a personal setback. Do you get frustrated when a client doesn’t respond to an email? Before you judge her, take a close look at your own email etiquette and ask yourself if you practice what you preach.
As Lizzie Post (great-great-granddaughter of etiquette maven Emily Post) says, “Etiquette is not something we use to judge other people, but something we use to better ourselves.”
Michelle Kelly, CEO (Chief Enjoyment Officer)
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