People who have more empathy for others tend to also have other positive emotional intelligence skills, such as being good listeners, knowing how to empathetically mirror other people’s feelings (rather than jump to give them advice), asking thought provoking questions (rather than simply stating their own opinion), sitting with a negative feeling (such as anger) before immediately acting on it, and the ability to help employees around them feel understood, cared about, and valued. These skills are not only important in social relationships, but can greatly affect a person’s career success, including their ability to handle difficult work situations effectively, and to help keep people engaged and motivated around them.
That being said, it can be very tricky to test a potential employee’s level of empathy (and/or emotional intelligence) when they are aware they are being tested. Most people over-estimate their positive attributes, and under estimate their challenges in written self-assessments, in part due to wanting to imagine themselves to be a certain way, trying to give the answers that they think are socially acceptable, and in the case of a job interview- wanting to please the employer and land the job.
For these reasons, it can be useful to “test” an applicant’s empathy level in more subtle ways that do not send off loud signals to the person that they are being tested, and to use methods that do not include obvious “correct” answers.
3 ways to look at a potential employee’s level of empathy
1. Pay attention to how the applicant treats people “who do not matter” in the interview process
For example, it can be useful to speak with the building security guard, receptionist, bathroom cleaning staff, assistants, and anyone else who may have interacted with the applicant the day of the interview, or at any other point through the process (either by phone, email, or in person). Some potential questions are: how did this person treat you? If you smiled or greeted them, how did they respond? etc. Essentially, you want to gage how this applicant treats the people that they do not view “as above them” or as valuable to helping them get the job, but rather do they see these other people as beneath them, are they rude, dismissive, etc.
2. Depending on what type of job they are applying for, ask an appropriate question to the role about how the applicant would handle an emotionally sensitive issue
The goal is to pick questions that do not have an obvious “correct” or “incorrect” answer, but rather make the applicant think about what they might actually do (which they will still try to adjust based on what they believe is correct in the interviewer’s mind). However, people with very low empathy are less likely to be able to guess at what the empathetic response would be.
For example, in a corporate role, you could ask the person: how would they respond to an employee who comes into their office at 7pm and starts crying hysterically about how stressed they are?
High empathy answers would most likely include some or all of the following:
- Spending some time (even if it’s at the end of the day – it can be only a few minutes)
- Listening to the person (rather than lecturing them or dismissing their feelings)
- Empathically mirroring the person (and the feelings and thoughts they are expressing).
- Coming up with some type of plan with the person to help address their feelings, even if it is the next day.
- Using adjectives that demonstrate they value the person’s feelings in the situation (even if it feels annoying that someone is crying in the office, or that they are holding them up at the end of the day).
- Using “we” statements that help the person to feel that they are not alone in their situation.
- Following up with the person after they address the issue, at regular intervals (maybe one per week or month or whatever is appropriate to the issue and role) to make the sure the person feels the issue has been resolved or is at least getting better and to make sure they are being an effective manager.
- Sample answer: “It sounds like you are feeling very overwhelmed right now. Let’s look at our schedules for tomorrow and setup a meeting where we can spend more time on this, as you are bringing up some important issues that we will work on together and find ways to address- maybe that means taking some things off your plate and/or working together to prioritize your current projects, to help make it more manageable. ”
3. Their ability to listen instead of “waiting” to speak
When interviewing a potential employee, it is natural for the person to be nervous and have lots to say. Notice if they seem engaged when you speak to them, or if they appear to be simply be waiting to speak. How do they interact with what you are saying, versus simply saying what they have prepared to say? How do they pivot with your conversation? While this tactic is less focused on empathy, it has the potential to give a potential employer more subtle information about someone’s ability to be an effective listener and communicator, which is equally important and often contributes to a person’s ability to empathize with others.
The point is …
Empathy is an important emotional trait that is often interwoven with a person’s level of emotional intelligence. I find that the most realistic ways to gage a person’s level of empathy is to pay attention to the subtle cues (such as how they treat people that they may potentially view as “unimportant”, asking open ended questions that do not have a “correct” answer, and reading their body language and ability to really listen in conversation, rather than simply waiting to say what they want to say. Of course it is easier to assess someone’s level of empathy when you know them better, but these are strategies that can be helpful to use when there is very limited time to asses this complicated trait.