The “and so it goes” phenomenon of going back to school that was so prevalent when school started again this year reminded me of how important milestones are to the people experiencing them, and why we need to cultivate empathy in all of our relationships (especially during those milestones). Perhaps you’re a parent sending a child off to a new school or college, an employer welcoming a new employee, or even a salesperson nurturing a prospect through a difficult decision-making process. In any type of relationship, the ability to empathize with what the other person is going through is critical.

Don’t Be Too Busy to Listen

Remember how scary it was to enter middle school when you were a kid? Especially if you just moved to the area and didn’t know anyone? That’s perhaps one of our earliest angst-ridden moments entering adulthood. Moving from a one-classroom environment to a multi-classroom schedule is a big deal. The rules shift. More is expected of us. It’s stressful!

Our lives are super-busy today, but it’s still up to us as parents and school officials (who were once children) to remember that anxiety and help guide our children through it. Looking back, did your parents take the time to listen to you and address your fears before, during and after the transition? How did you feel about that at the time? Parents who take time to think about transitions from their children’s point of view, to listen to them and to encourage open dialogue tend to enjoy a rich relationship with their children all their lives. If you let yourself be “too busy to listen,” you’re robbing yourself and your child of something precious—the relationship glue that holds close-knit families together.

Walk That Mile in Their Shoes

Just as empathizing with our children is important, practicing empathy in business is just as critical to the function of any organization. Leaders—remember where you were early in your career, and take pains to ease employees into your systems and minimize their discomfort. Does that mean you need to coddle people? Nope. They’re adults. But they still need time to navigate your landscape and learn what’s expected of them. You’ve been there, but many times we get so caught up in where we are right now that we forget to think about how it feels to be the new kid on the block.

Take a look at HR and other employee-facing aspects of your business from a new-hire perspective. How can you make their transition from newbie to highly functioning employee a smooth one? If you don’t have a mentoring system, start one. Didn’t you feel more comfortable when someone took you under their wing?

Listening and putting on someone else’s shoes helps build that relationship glue, and it works the same way in the business environment as it does in personal life. People are people whether they’re family members, employees, vendors, partners or peers.

Empathy also helps at the negotiating table. Good negotiators do their homework by finding out as much as possible about the needs and wants of those on the opposite side of the table. When your team members look at the negotiating process from the adversary’s view of the world, it helps them position your solution as a best fit, and sets them up for growing a long-term relationship once the contract is won.

#JustBeNice Goes a Long Way

Listening, looking at things from another person’s perspective, letting them know you understand them and are willing to help—all of these are facets of empathy that need consistent practice. Some people seem to find it easier to develop empathy than others, but it all comes down to one thing: being good to people. Keep doing it and you’ll get better at it!

I’ve often said that relationships are like muscle tissue, the more they are engaged, the stronger and more valuable they become. Developing empathy is an important component in helping build those relationship muscles. Practicing its facets improves all walks of life, and should be on everyone’s exercise list.

Originally posted at The Future of Customer Engagement and Commerce, December 7th, 2015

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