“Empathy: The Heart of Communication”

My title is in quotation marks because it’s a heading in the book Put Emotional Intelligence to Work, by Jeff Feldman and Karl Mulle.

Lots of skills are involved in effective communication. That’s why teaching business communication will always be such an interesting challenge! But most of us would agree that empathy—the ability to understand, and care about, others’ feelings and points of view—is at the very heart of the ability to connect successfully with others.

How can we teach empathy? That’s a daunting task. And it’s made even more daunting by the fact that extensive video gaming and use of communication technologies has made our current students more empathy challenged than students of the past. Eve Ash gave a great talk on this point at the Association for Business Communication’s Southwest/Federation of Business Disciplines conference in Dallas this past March. Though today’s students are more appreciative of diversity, with a more “live and let live” attitude than those of previous generations, they’ve also spent less time with baby sister, with Grandpa, and with other people different from themselves.

In this month’s issue of Talent Development is an article by Daniel Goleman, the psychologist and science writer who first popularized the concept of emotional intelligence in his book by the same name. The article, titled “What It Takes to Achieve Managerial Success,” includes a story about “Janice,” a marketing manager at a Fortune 500 company who struggled with workplace relationships. A leadership coach assessed her problems this way:

“Overall, Janice could not read the social cues of a group nor could she recognize people’s emotional cues. Even more risky to her own success, Janice did not realize she was being too brusque in dealing with upper management. When she had a major difference of opinion with a manager, she didn’t know when to recede” (p. 52).

This lack of awareness—of self and of others—was costing Janice a great deal. As bcomm teachers, we are in exactly the right situation to help our students avoid such problems, because communication is where relationships happen.

Feldman and Mulle’s book makes an excellent case for cultivating empathy, and it can spark ideas for classroom exercises. For example, you could . . .

  • Play a video clip of a movie and ask students “to pick up on the nonverbal cues of the actors in the scene and identify the emotions they represent” (p. 82).
  • Discuss the kinds of responses and prompts that active listeners use to understand what the other communicator is saying and why.
  • Talk about factors that hamper effective listening (or effective understanding of the intended readers for a message)—such as preconceived notions, too much emotion, and insufficient thought about what the speaker or readers really value or want to avoid (despite their surface words).
  • Have the students do an effective listening exercise with someone who comes to them with a concern or problem (one might even set up this exercise in class by putting students into pairs and having each student share something he or she has been wrestling with). The goal is practice to holding off on giving solutions or advice until one has thoroughly listened to the speaker’s issue. Students can then share their reactions to this activity. (Was it hard? Did it make the conversation seem like it was lasting forever? Was it strangely calming or rewarding in some way?)

Any strategy that encourages students to stop and pay attention to others— their project teammates, different personality types, businesspeople in different industries and professions, those from other cultures—can strengthen their capacity for empathy. If done in a positive spirit, such activities can be fun. Stretching our students’ interpersonal imagination is serious business, though. Their success as communicators, as employees, as managers, and even as adults will depend on it.

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