Belinda Parmar: ‘You have to institutionalise empathy’

The World Credit Union Conference in Glasgow explored how empathy can lead to better results

What does it mean to be empathetic? And how can acting with empathy improve leadership in an organisation? These were just some of the questions addressed by Belinda Parmar, OBE, CEO of the Empathy Business, in her keynote speech at the 2022 World Credit Union Conference in Glasgow.

Parmar advised credit unions on how to act with empathy to better serve their members. “You are a force for good and empathy is a big part of that. If ever the world needed people like you it is now,” she told credit union leaders.

She started by explaining the difference between sympathy (sharing someone else’s view or feelings) and empathy (understanding the feelings of another without necessarily sharing them).

“Empathy is not about talking but acting. We might not agree, but empathy about you being responsible and me supporting you,” she added.

Despite being perceived as a commercial trade-off, empathy can be a tool to drive commercial results. She argued that empathetic companies are able to better serve members and employees whilst being more profitable.

Another myth around empathy is that it is an innate feature. According to Parmar, research suggests that only 50% of abilities are genetic, with the other half based on environment. This means that companies rewarding employees for being empathetic could help drive empathy within the business.

As CEO of the Empathy Business, Parmer has worked with a number of clients, from large companies to the UK government, to improve their language and make their communication more empathetic.

Some of her key tips for credit unions included avoiding corporate, dehumanising words such as “optimise”, “mobilise” or “authorise”. Likewise, a “head office” can become a “support hub”, placing people above processes. The journey could start with looking at customer service, recruitment and call scripts through the lens of empathy. Likewise, the board chair of a credit union could start meetings by sharing and discussing customer calls.

“You have to institutionalise empathy,” she said, adding that when it comes to showing empathy towards someone one dislikes, the first step is to find common ground and share vulnerabilities. Asking questions and giving people the opportunity to respond can also help.

“Underneath empathy there is curiosity; if you are not curious and asking questions you are fake. Find something that you like even about someone you really dislike in addition to agreeing on one thing,” she said, adding that “change will only come through difficult conversations”.

“Empathy accepts friction: like in a family, you have to accept friction.”

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