EmpathyIn June 2013 my article “To Nurture Business Relationships, Master These 10 Impact Moments” appeared on Huff Post BUSINESS. In it I described how I have been reflecting on the difference in how “best of breed” people conduct relationships. I’ve identified ten attributes that these people seem to be able to access when what I call “Relationship Impact Moments” arise.

Throughout the day, each of us encounters moments that present opportunities improve our performance on each of the ten traits. In this post I expand on the first; in upcoming posts in this series I will discuss each of the other attributes.

Ten Relationship Impact Moments

  1. Empathy
  2. Engagement
  3. Adaptability
  4. Perspective
  5. Conviction
  6. Collaboration
  7. Selflessness
  8. Accountability
  9. Candor
  10. Self-Improvement

Empathy. It means being able to experience the feelings, thoughts, and attitudes of another person. We recognize the definition, but how do we develop the skill to increase the range and sensitivity of our emotional radar?

To appreciate the importance of empathy in Relationship Impact Moments, understand that we are all fundamentally in the relationship business. Internally, you need relationships with colleagues, supervisors and direct reports. Externally, you need strategic relationships with vendors, clients, collaborators, and other stakeholders. Each walks a different walk than yours. How do you get into their shoes? Can the ability to take the perspectives of others’ be intentionally developed? Can the habit of truly setting aside one’s own agendas to direct one’s full attention to someone else be consistently nurtured?

Sociologists tell us that when we meet another person, we alternate the exchange of small “chunks” of information, forming judgments about each other by turns as we gradually give and take. Much of this occurs in the form of brief narratives—stories that make that “getting to know you” phase easier by revealing what we can relate to in each other’s past. When all goes well, that ““You get me, I get you” feeling begins to form, based on fundamental commonalities.

If that mutual “I get you, you get me” feeling fails to form—then beginning a relationship with that person is going to be much more difficult. And yet, we can’t choose to do business only with people we get—and who get us. That’s why empathy is at the top of my list of Relationship Impact Moments.

To develop business relationships, most of us have learned to project an identity to others that we think they expect. Sometimes there’s a big gap between who we really are and who we project ourselves to be. When we connect comfortably, that gap lessens. When another person makes us feel uncomfortable—for example, inferior or insecure—that gap increases. I personally feel everyone should be as real in our relationships as possible. (Which is why candor is also on my list of relationship impact traits.)

What interests me about this moment when a personal or professional relationship starts to form—or fails to—is the role that empathy plays.

At this stage of initiating a relationship, the goal is to explore the potential for mutual benefit. You look for the ways in which both parties will be substantially better of because of that relationship. How do you bring the empathy to really soak in not just what the other person is saying, but what he is feeling?

I submit that this skill can be learned. In fact, I have identified eight facets of an individual that can be deduced during a simple interaction like a coffee meeting. By consciously paying attention to these facets, you can learn to form a fairly deep and accurate judgment about the person, and your potential to form a relationship in which each is better off because of the other.

To remember these facets, I use the mnemonic “FORM WISE”—as in “form a wise assessment.” I choose my initial questions based on facets that quickly locate where this person is “coming from” and where she intends this relationship to go.

“FORM”

  • Family: background that has influenced the way this individual builds relationships, based on early experiences in life.
  • Occupation: skills, strengths, industry knowledge—what does she do well?
  • Reason: agenda, workplace pressures, office politics—whatever has influenced why she agreed to this meeting.
  • Mission: What’s her aspiration, her ambition? What is she trying to accomplish? What does she fear? What is she passionate about?

During the interaction, be it a coffee meeting or office visit, I’m very intentional in both asking for and giving enough personal background to allow us each to judge each other. We are ach able to get each other’s “FORM.”

But I’m also careful to make sure it doesn’t come across as the Spanish Inquisition. I go gently, moving from “FORM” to “WISE.” My follow-up questions allow me to form an impression of how this person interacts with others, which leads me toward greater insight into how to nurture our relationship.

“WISE”

  • Working style: what’s the way in which she prefers to work? Is she analytical, or does she go more by feel? Are deadlines sacred to her, or merely suggestions? How much contact with me, and in what channels, would welcome?
  • Imperfections: does she reveal vulnerabilities? Have there been any “Un-WOW moments” in our interaction?
  • Sensory preferences: I listen for phrases like “tell me, show me a picture, walk me through how did you do that…” I want to know if she tends toward an auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learning style. These are clues to how she communicates, and how she learns best.
  • Expectations: What assumptions has she brought to this meeting? What does she anticipate? Can I add value by offering a change of perspective, or would she find that uncomfortable this early in our relationship?

By using the “FORM WISE” framework, I can quickly fire up my empathy radar and conduct a “getting to know you” conversation fluidly, and yet with very productive results. We all have agendas—this tool allows me to set mine aside and focus on what my partner in the relationship is all about.

Nour Takeaways:

  1. Empathy is first on my list of Relationship Impact Moments because business relationships require us to form relationships with people of all kinds; this comes more easily when we are skilled at empathy.
  2. Empathy leads others to feel comfortable, which narrows the gap between their true identity and the identity they project.
  3. Use the mnemonic “FORM WISE” to recall the facets of personal information that help you form a wise assessment of others quickly.
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