A new approach to teaching business and leadership communications is turning heads at the University of Richmond.
The Robins School of Business introduced a course this schoolyear called The Empathy Project, in which students from within and outside the business school are being taught how empathizing with others can improve interpersonal communication, and in turn such things as business transactions, interactions in the workplace and management decisions.
The course is taught by visiting lecturer Fred Talbott, a Petersburg native and retired professor who created the MBA leadership communication program at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management.
Talbott calls empathy the missing link in business and professional communication, and hence the foundation of the course that he brought to UR at the invitation of Randy Raggio, associate dean of the university’s Richard S. Reynolds Graduate School.
“We teach professional listening, professional speaking, all kinds of professional writing, engagement – the whole nine yards. But the one missing link in all business communication – heck, in all professional and interpersonal communication – is empathy,” Talbott said. “And empathy is the ability and the willingness to see the world from the point of view and the eyes of another.”
Talbott said the process of considering others’ perspectives and putting oneself in others’ shoes can help in management, sales and other business tasks and scenarios, as well as in the task required in all of those: listening.
“So many people today are so time-pressed that they often listen to respond,” Talbott said. “They don’t listen for content, they don’t listen for meaning. It’s almost as if they don’t think they have time to do that.
“Very often when we’re trying to engage and truly understand another person, we forget to literally give them enough time and ask enough questions and be considerate enough to view the world, their experience, from their point of view,” he said. “And when we do so, when we learn the ability to do that, we’re not guessing anymore.”
Talbott’s course this semester had students focus on local historical figures who had an impact on the world, such as patriot Patrick Henry, poet Edgar Allan Poe and civil rights pioneer Maggie Walker. Students were tasked with understanding their challenges and struggles by putting themselves in their shoes and writing essays from their perspectives.
Last week, students presented their findings and takeaways from the course in the last class of the semester. Topics varied from personal improvements and awareness, relatable cultural events that occurred during the semester, and lessons learned from friends and strangers whose perspectives and experiences they learned and came to appreciate.
“The more people you talk to, your world perspective does change,” said Ally Kiely, a sophomore from the Philadelphia area double-majoring in accounting and cognitive psychology.
“I feel a lot more confident speaking and going up to new people and talking to them,” she said. “Part of The Empathy Project was to go and meet new people that you see on a daily basis but don’t typically interact with, and that was a big learning experience for me in opening my perspective, as well as just feeling more comfortable talking to other people.”
The empathy approach is catching on at universities such as Georgetown, Stanford and Berkeley that have similar programs, according to UR. Talbott said the approach is catching on in the business world, as well, noting a local former student who works for consulting firm Deloitte who told him the company includes empathy as a component in its training for new consultants.
Last week’s sessions wrapped up four classes Talbott offered this semester – an MBA class and three undergrad offerings – and he’s set to offer four more classes in the spring. After that, he hopes to take The Empathy Project nationwide, as he said he’s pitching the concept to 100 universities, as well as journalism schools.
A former reporter with the Virginian-Pilot in Hampton Roads and the Orlando Sentinel in Florida, where he’s currently based, Talbott recalled the effect empathy played in one assignment in which he was tasked with telling the stories of members of a Ku Klux Klan group.
“I just let them talk, and I thought, ‘What would it be like to be these guys,’ and wrote one of the best stories I’ve ever written, because I could see the world from their point-of-view,” he said. “Every great story I was involved in, it was because of empathy, because I opened myself up to truly try to recognize the point of view of another.
“People think the word ‘sensitive’ is a weakness; it’s a strength,” Talbott said. “You see far more aware and engaged managers and leaders. It tends to prompt superb foresight – you begin recognizing how people react, how people are influenced, and that allows you to plan.”