What is empathy and why is it important in business?

The definitive salesperson is one who can anticipate a customer’s requirements.

It has been said that sales, in these times, is not about meeting a customer’s requirements, but rather, finding a solution to their problem. Some have even gone further, saying that sales is about anticipating a problem, articulating how that problem might affect the customer, getting an agreement with the customer and then creating a solution.

To be that definitive salesperson requires the interest and ability to walk in the customer’s shoes, to “get inside their heads”. This is called empathy. And it’s reached a point where anyone involved in sales (aren’t we all involved in sales?) requires that characteristic to succeed.

So is empathy an inherent characteristic – one we’re born with – or can it be leaned as a skill? The answer, of course is “yes” – both are true. Some people are born with great degrees of empathy is their make-up, some have developed it via their upbringing and others have taken the time and effort to hone these skills.

In a “Management Issues” article last year, Jerry Pounds made some interesting observations. Empathy may be innate: toddlers seem to relate to the happiness or sadness of others. However, we also learn empathic ability through socialization. For example, most of us are coached to feel pain or guilt when we inflict suffering on others.

Conversely, people who continually engage in anti-social behaviour, such as narcissists and psychopaths show little or no evidence of real empathic ability. Psychopaths are seemingly able to demonstrate the appearance of sensing the emotions of others - but only use their skills to charm or manipulate.

So do we need to recondition managers to feel the emotions their employees are feeling (and that's a good thing), or simply train them to behave appropriately in a wide range of emotion-provoking situations?

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman's identifies five emotional competencies. Among them are four that appear to be necessary to manage others respectfully:

  • The ability to identify and name one's emotional states
  • The capacity to manage one's emotional states
  • The capacity to read, be sensitive to, and influence other people's emotions
  • The ability to enter and sustain satisfactory interpersonal relationships”


Empathy is defined as…. “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” So, given that the purchaser of a service or product nearly always has some degree of emotional attachment to the outcome, it is vital that the salesperson understands how the purchaser feels about the problem (frustration) and how this feeling will be overcome by the solution (relief).

In sales empathy is a no-brainer. If it’s not within the sales person’s psyche (remembering that we’re all in sales, now) then it should be learned and practised as a matter of urgency, because it could be costing the business in spades.

But, in business, does empathy stop at sales?

Of course not!

To ensure people are fully engaged in the workplace, managers, supervisors and employees should all practise empathy, so that the reasons for behaviour and opinions are better understood. Empathy is a characteristic required to be practised by everyone in the workplace to ensure there is trust, respect and positive outcomes. Under these conditions, the business will thrive and its people, along with it.

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What John Matthew believes about small business

That the owner has risked many things that others take for granted;

That there is no guaranteed income or reward for the considerable effort that is required;

That often, the family home is on the line to support the business and its constituents;

That there is a dignity and self-respect that is earned;

That entire communities would be better places if there was an increased appreciation and respect for small business.

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