What is the most important attribute that an entrepreneur can have? It’s hard to pick just one. You have to be persuasive, determined, innovative, and so much more.
You are going to wear the hat of a salesperson, a marketer, an accountant, a product manager, a web designer, and any of a dozen other occupations.
With all of that going on in your life, can one skill stand out above the rest?
Empathy is the foundation upon which all of those other abilities are built. It would take a full book to explain all of the advantages of empathy for an entrepreneur, but let me give you a few examples.
1. Empathy makes you more persuasive.
“Empathy. It’s one of the biggest things to which I attribute my success. It’s the reason I believe that I am one of the great salespeople out there.”
— Gary Vaynerchuk, entrepreneur and CEO of ad agency, VaynerMedia
It’s not easy to convince people of anything. We are stubborn creatures. We have built defensive walls around even the silliest of our beliefs, and even your best arguments probably aren’t going to break through those walls.
These walls aren’t made of anything flimsy like straw or wood. They are made of reason, fear, and shame. The balance of those three ingredients is often hard to gauge from either side of the wall.
Walls of reason can be brought down by stronger reason. Walls of fear and shame, on the other hand, are far stronger than even the most compelling argument.
So what can you do?
If you can’t beat them, join them.
Step into the shoes of your customer, your partner, or whoever you are trying to persuade. Try to understand why they have taken the stance that they have. Try to shed your preconceived notions in favor of theirs.
Now you are behind their wall. Make sure they know you are there. Show them that you understand where they are coming from. Make their own argument for them — and try to do it even better than they do.
This practice is called steelmanning. Its more famous cousin, strawmanning — the practice of constructing a weak version of your opponent’s argument, tearing it down, and claiming victory — is a tool of fear and shame. Steelmanning is a tool of empathy.
You are on their side. Make them believe that.
Once you’ve formed that bond, walk them along a path to your original stance. Be excited with them. Be fearful with them. Whatever emotions or thoughts are on that path, they are better experienced together than alone.
Remember that this is a journey. Depending on how entrenched or how far their location, the process may be painfully slow. Don’t get frustrated. You’ll get there when you get there.
Empathy is a powerful tool of persuasion. It may not be the fastest method, but it has a high hit rate and offers a more complete conversion.
Anyone that can be persuaded to your side by an easier method can just as easily be persuaded to another position, but empathetic converts are here to stay.
2. Empathy makes you more determined.
“Empathy is the faculty to resonate with the feelings of others. When we meet someone who is joyful, we smile. When we witness someone in pain, we suffer in resonance with his or her suffering.”
— Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist Monk
Every entrepreneur feels like giving up at some point. There is something that keeps us going when that happens. At the heart of that resolve is passion. You might think that passion is a fixed factor. You either have a passion for something or you don’t. That’s wrong.
You need some internal passion for an idea before you jump into it, but that passion can later be enhanced through empathy.
You are solving a pain point for your customers. Use that. They have a determination to solve that problem the same as you do. Their reasons may be different, and they may not be as resolute as you are. Those differences don’t matter.
Focus on what brings you together: the pain.
When you feel your customers’ pain as if it were your own, you also start to feel their determination as if it were your own. The determination existed only to solve the pain. The pain is now yours, so the determination has to be yours as well.
3. Empathy makes you more innovative.
“The value that I really learned to appreciate deeply and which I talk about a great deal is empathy. I don’t think it is simply a ‘nice to have’ but I believe it is at the centre of the agenda for innovation here at Microsoft.”
— Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft
The path from empathy to innovation partially flows from the previous points about determination. You have more resolve to fix the pain point, so obviously you are going to expend more effort in doing so. But that’s not even the best part.
Innovation is one part necessity, but it’s also one part creativity.
Your customer is determined because of the pain that they feel. Even if you have felt this pain before, you haven’t felt it in exactly the same way they have. You haven’t had their lived experience, but you can try to at least get a glimpse of it.
When it comes to customer interviews, one common piece of advice is this: ask what other means the customer has used to solve the problem. The intention is to determine how important the problem really is to the customer, where they look for resources, and perhaps even to give you a building block for your own solution.
That’s great advice, but I suggest you go a step deeper. It’s not just about the solution itself. Try to figure out the thought process that led to that solution. Why did it seem like a good idea?
What you are doing here is borrowing creativity. Your innovation is guided by your unique experience, your starting point, and your heuristics. These are your biases. Your customers each have their biases. Use their biases to help you break out of your own.
You can’t completely absorb their process, but empathy can help you to incorporate at least parts of it. There are an infinite number of possible solutions to any problem, but we are stuck looking at only a small subset of those solutions due to our own limitations.
Our customers look at a different subset. Better still, their subsets are more likely to contain solution types that will readily be accepted by the market as a whole. After all, they are a part of that market.
Not only has empathy made us more innovative, but it has led us to innovations that the customers will better relate to. Handily, this also enhances our empathetic persuasion technique.
Get out of your own head. It’s a place full of preconceived notions and constantly recirculating variants of the same stale ideas.
As entrepreneurs, we tend to be more than a bit narcissistic. It comes with the territory. A student of mine once called me “narcississtic and condesending” on a review. My first thought was he spelled both of those words wrong.
That narcissism leads us to think that we know best, that we are enough, and that our ideas are the best ones. That’s where we get in trouble. It’s also where a good helping of empathy can get us out.
If you learn to be empathetic toward your customers, your partners, your employees, and everyone else in your life, it will make you a better business person.
- You are more persuasive when you empathize.
- You can empathetically borrow determination to enhance your own.
- You will innovate better if you use empathy to get beyond your own biases.
One final note. I have oft heard people say that they are just not that empathetic. Empathy is a skill that takes practice.
Some people are natural pianists, but anyone can learn to play the piano. In much the same way, some people are naturally more empathetic, but anyone can enhance their empathy.
If you are starting from ground zero — having only the faintest bit of empathy — you could not be in a better position. The 80/20 rule still applies to empathy. Those first few steps you take will be incredibly powerful!
I challenge you to find a skill that will get you further in your entrepreneurial career than empathy.
Scratch that and let me broaden it.
I challenge you to find a skill that will get you further in life than empathy.
You are not alone. There is no advantage in pretending that you are.