Empathy is a popular core value, seen throughout board rooms across the country. And if your manager’s not telling you it’s the key to your success, an influencer on LinkedIn will.
Or a twerp in an article.
Empathy is loosely defined as ‘putting yourself in someone else’s patent leather brogues’. And by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”.
An essential recruitment skill if ever there was one. Because if you don’t understand your market, you’ll never work it properly.
We all know the definition of sympathy’s feeling sorry for someone. For me, the key difference between the two terms is:
Empathy is understanding someone’s situation. Sympathy’s taking that understanding and making a judgement on it.
Over reliance on either’s bad for business. But getting them mixed up will kill your career.
Empathy doesn’t require judgement.
And sympathy doesn’t come into recruitment a lot. I struggle to think of many occasions where sympathy would’ve been an appropriate response to the things I encountered.
There are some obvious examples.
A recently bereaved client.
A candidate on the verge of tears due to their current work situation.
The absolutely awful guilt that comes from guiding someone to failure.
So why the comparison? Because there’s a fine line separating empathy and sympathy. And crossing it can dramatically alter any number of interactions in recruitment.
When I went to HyperGrowth London, empathy was heralded as one of the most important traits when it comes to success in marketing, business and life in general.
Empathy’s one of the most powerful objection handling techniques I learned from my time as a charity fundraiser. Which, weirdly enough, shares a few parallels with recruitment.
There’s that old line that one of the strongest things you can do when you’re selling something is agree with objections.
“Wanna buy a new Rolex? This one’s 20 grand”
That’s… ridiculously expensive for a watch.
“I totally agree. Now let me explain why…”
In this situation, empathy is used to put the breaks on the prospect’s emotional response to your pitch. You’re effectively saying “we’re on the same page”, which gives you greater grounds to move the conversation in the direction you want it to go.
If I can be honest with you for a moment – and I hope you’re empathetic about this – I’ve never sold a retainer before. Wish has. And he’s written articles about how to do so.
But if I was going to, I’d rely on being as empathetic as possible. Rather than banging on about my USPs.
If you’re asking someone to do something they’ve never done, what do you think’s most likely to get them on side?
A compelling explanation of the benefits?
Or displaying you understand the gravity of their situation?
The correct answer’s both.
Agreeing with objections might sound counterintuitive. But it only becomes a problem when agreeing with one compounds or validates it. Which means you might apologise for what you’ve been pitching.
Aaand we’ve veered into sympathy…
It can be patronising. It can be rude. It’s, by definition, incorrect.
And particularly in sales or a negotiation, it can seriously weaken your proposal.
Whereas empathy shows unity. And by extension, strength.
Greg’s dog dies.
He tells his mate Alice, who says “I know how you feel.”
To which Greg replies “You have no idea how I feel”.
He’s both right and wrong.
Alice can’t know how Greg feels without reading his mind. But then, Greg making a judgement on that would mean he’s read Alice’s mind. Which he’s just said is impossible.
You can read more about it here.
The limit to human empathy doesn’t mean we’ll never understand anyone, or be understood ourselves. The paradox is more a complaint about the accuracy of empathy rather than a take-down of the entire concept.
So in the above case, whilst it’s only a hypothetical situation, sympathy’s probably the way to go.
The simplest definition of empathy is ‘understanding’. And the best way to “hack” or “optimise” empathy is to listen more. The more you listen, the more you’ll understand.
You can’t learn empathy. But you can practice being empathetic. Which means it can be improved.
You can prove you’ve listened to and understood someone by repeating what they’ve said. Not verbatim. But by using their language in your response.
This alone can help to regain control of a negotiation and lead the conversation in the direction you want it to go.
And there will be a right direction.
Whether they know it or not, whoever you’re dealing with is waiting for you to find it. And the only way you’ll be able to is if you put the effort in to listen.
Whether that’s on the briefing call to pull a role. Or a candidate talking to you about their dream job.
Check in more.
Ask open questions.
Treat every interaction as an opportunity to develop your understanding of your market.
Ideally, we’d like to change the industry. For the better. And there’s a lot of work to do – still – in repairing the way Recruiters are perceived.
Do a Google search for “Recruiters are” and look at the state of the suggestions.
You’ve seen the rants on LinkedIn. The vast majority accuse you of being uncaring. Which I personally believe greater empathy would fix.
Being empathetic isn’t just going to improve outcomes from your sales approaches, it’s what’s been missing in the PR war.
Empathy is just one part of emotional intelligence. There are a number of factors that go into it. And working on all of them will make you a better Recruiter.
Consultant - Digital Transformation/ Emerging Tech at Nicoll Curtin
Experienced Senior Recruiter at Charles Levick
Broadcast Media Technology - Consultant at Christy Media Solutions
Director of Interim Recruitment at Ernest Hunter Green
Miami Consultant - Private Banking or Commodities at Redstone Search
Senior Consultant- Accounting & Finance at Charterhouse Hong Kong
Onsite Talent Partner - Futureheads ON at Futureheads
Start your own business at The Independent Recruiter Hub