Empathy 101 and Why You Need It For Your Job

As a professional project manager, you deal with many people in your day to day life, and you wear many hats.  You cater to your clients, you supervise your team, and you help people when they get stuck.  You juggle time in the form of schedules, money in the form of budgets, and emotions in the form of that unreliable anxiety-riddled new hire.

It’s a lot to work with.  There is a way to make the people part of your job easier, though, simply by changing your attitude.  What is this magical method that will boost your work relationships?

Practice empathy.

“Wait, what’s that?  I’ve heard of it before, but what exactly is it and why do I need it?” some of you might be asking.

Empathy is when you step into someone else’s shoes and imagine a situation from their point of view.  Sort of like when you watch a movie, say Wolf on Wall Street, and identify with the protagonist, in this case Jordan Belfort.  You’re imagining that you are him, faced with these problems of living a wealthy and unhealthy lifestyle, and in turn you empathize with him, even if you aren’t at all like Jordan Belfort.  You know how he is feeling and you respond the way he does.

So that’s how empathy works.  Now take a look at your worst client.  They may be indecisive, overly emotional, too demanding, or outright crazy.  You know the type:  emails at 3am asking to see progress reports, calls at 5am since you didn’t respond right away, eighteen angry voicemails devolving into one last voicemail where they sob viciously into their phone.  Sometimes followed by a surprise personal visit to your home, in the case of your client being mentally unstable or just incredibly socially awkward.

Yeah.  Now imagine being them.  Imagine that this project you are working on (that may not be at the top of your priority list) is the absolutely most important and crucial project of your entire life.  Regardless if it truly is or isn’t for them, they will often feel like it is.  And they will often place blame on you if anything at all goes wrong.  You are holding their metaphorical babies in your hands.  If you drop those babies, even if you catch them mid-air like a champ, you will have hell to pay.

“Alright, so I’m a delusional client and that outstanding project manager over there is juggling my infant triplets.  How’s this roleplay going to help anything?”

Great question.  If you see the project the way your client does, you will work on it with the same passion they have.  This means you will produce infinitely better results than you would if you treated it as a side project to what you really want to do.

Remember, your clients would probably manage the project themselves if they could, because they think they know what is best for it.  The only thing stopping them from doing so is time, money, and a complete lack of project management skills.  That’s why you were hired.  So put those skills to use and help realize your client’s dreams!  That passion combined with your knowledge will produce fantastic results that will have your clients coming back, eager to give you their money again and again.

What’s the overarching lesson to take away here?  Step in your client’s shoes, become them, see the project the way they do and tackle it with the same passion they have, but use your knowledge and skills as a PM to ensure a project’s success.  As a result, those 3am emails, 5am calls, and constant reevaluations may dwindle down a bit.  Win-win for everyone!

Sara Border is a blogger for Copper, and she empathizes with movie characters all the time.  Poor Bambi.