The Most Important Sales Skill: Empathy

Posted: 19/06/2014


    By Angela Stephenson

Are we born with it or can it be learned?

All high flying sales professionals will agree that emotional intelligence is key to developing successful business relationships. However, if you struggle with client empathy then rest assured: everybody has the ability to empathise.

In its most basic sense, empathy means ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. It means stepping outside of your own lived experience and opinions, and seeing where other people are coming from and what their motivations are.

In short, this is about remembering that you're not the only pebble on the beach. Everyone has different motivations and personalities, and the best sales people recognise this.

Empathetic people are popular because they have the power to fully understand others and make them feel at ease. When someone seems empathetic, you open up to them about your problems without the fear of being judged. The most successful sales people engage their clients in this kind of trusting bond and get to understand them on a deep level.

How does empathy relate to sales?

Being charismatic is not enough if you fail to truly listen to and identify with your clients. You might have charisma but you need empathy to push past first meetings and make sustainable business relationships that will last for years.

Empathy builds trust in client relationships, strengthens teams, improves coaching interactions and forms an emotionally intelligent foundation to build strong business on top of. However, can everyone be empathetic? Some people claim to be ‘naturally’ less sensitive or empathetic than others and struggle to relate to others.

Insensitive, un-empathetic people tend to be arrogant and self-centred with a need for admiration. They are selfish, manipulative, aggressive and often fail to listen to others. Will they be successful in sales? Probably not at first. But with a little bit of work they could begin to emotionally relate to people in business.

Nature or nurture?

As with all nature or nurture debates, nobody is certain why some people are more empathetic than others. However, research has proven that individual capacities for empathy are not restricted and people can work to improve their emotional intelligence. Recent research shows that people living with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are capable of empathy. If they are capable of empathy, almost anyone is!

Narcissistic personality disorder is a psychological condition where people have an inflated sense of self importance and constantly seek admiration from others. It has long been thought that narcissists are biologically incapable of empathy, but in truth they are able to condition their minds to relate to others.

Empathy is the ability to experience another person’s perspective or emotions – it reinforces social cooperation and throughout the years has ensured our survival in groups. High empathy friendships are rewarding and help us improve our quality of life.

The bottom line is that anyone can boost their empathy levels and sales people will find that this directly impacts on their success.

Here are five ways to strengthen your capacity for empathy:

  1. Always seek to establish common ground with whoever you meet. Seek to identify similarities rather than differences between you and other people. Once you identify with someone and see them as a reflection of your own personality, you will have more time for them. Empathetic people seek to identify with people they may hold contrasting opinions with.
  2. Listen intently. Listen with 100% of your attention focused on the person who is speaking. It sounds simple, but very rarely do we do this; usually, we are busy thinking about our own plans and thoughts, or simply about what we’re going to say. The ability to completely immerse yourself in what someone else is saying allows you to focus on their feelings, wants and needs. Highly empathetic people put their own thoughts aside and listen to others.
  3. Push your comfort zone. This applies more to your personal life than your professional life; visit new places, spend time with different people, do some regular volunteering. Push yourself to do or see things that you would not usually do. By exposing yourself to different places, people and lifestyles, you will eliminate the differences between your life and others’, whilst developing your capacity to empathise with almost anybody.
  4. Talk to strangers. The most empathetic people are curious about strangers and unafraid to develop a relationship with them. Take inspiration from children; they often seek to develop relationships and engage with people by asking them questions and getting to know them. Try to regain some of that childlike curiosity. You don’t have to be strangers, they can be people you see regularly but have never spoken to: cleaners, delivery drivers, neighbours or people you regularly see on the bus.
  5. Pay attention to things outside of yourself. This is closely linked to the second point, but it’s vital to developing empathy. Instead of becoming too preoccupied with your own thoughts, pay attention to other people and what’s going on around you. Notice the subtleties, like body language and tone of voice, and tap into the details of other peoples’ existence. You will find the results fascinating.

In sales and life, those who lack empathy will pay a high price in the long run. A lack of empathy leads to the breakdown of relationships, increased conflict and can encourage poor decision-making practices in businesses.

Empathy is a valuable trait that all sales people should work on in order to become not only better at their job, but better human beings.


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